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The Forces of Darkness

Looking to Chekhov on how to muddle through cultural upheaval.

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Cherry Orchard

Steppenwolf Theater Company

"Any idiot can face a crisis," Chekhov once observed. "It's the day-to-day living that wears you out." And in his final masterpiece, Cherry Orchard, the small disturbances of daily life do loom large while big social problems get swept under the rug. A maid breaks a dish and bursts into tears. A besotted student, stung when the mother of his beloved calls him a "ninny," hurls an imprecation larded with portentous finality and exits the room--only to tumble down the stairs. Meanwhile, the great financial disaster affecting almost all the characters is routinely ignored. The least melodramatic of Chekhov's major plays, Cherry Orchard even overturns the dictum that a gun introduced in the first act must be fired by the last. Oh, there's a gun in the play, but since it belongs to the biggest klutz (not the same guy who takes a header down the stairs), there's no fear he'll discharge it unless it's by accident into his own foot.

Where Ivanov (1889) ends with the title character shooting himself in the head, the 1904 Cherry Orchard exemplifies the mature Chekhov, who was facing his own death from tuberculosis (he died the same year). This is a world defined not by uncontrollable emotions but by the constant tug-of-war between stasis and change, between the opposing siren calls of one's childhood and cosmopolitan sophistication, between those who have been rich and are now among the genteel poor and those who have risen from slavery to mercantile success.

It's difficult not to view Steppenwolf's production of Cherry Orchard--translator Curt Columbus remains faithful to Russian convention by dumping the definite article--through the lens of critic Robert Brustein's comment that the best of Chekhov's works concern "the prostration of the cultured elite before the forces of darkness." When one of the characters laments, "I'm a man of good, liberal values. No one thinks much of that now," one remembers that the cultured elite got their asses kicked on November 2. But like the play itself, Tina Landau's spirited, astute staging resists categorization. It's to Chekhov's credit if this production resonates with our sense that we're on the brink of horrifying change, but Landau doesn't push it.

Scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez has enveloped the entire upstairs theater in floor-to-ceiling swaths of lacy white material that sometimes suggest cherry trees in full blossom, sometimes the same orchard in frostbitten gloom. Landau employs some of the staging devices she used to great effect in Theatrical Essays last summer in the Garage, most notably creating small tableaux throughout the space, which emphasizes the characters' connectedness and our closeness to them. Adorning the back wall of the playing area is a long line of black-and-white photos of long-dead ancestors, silent witnesses we pass as we enter the theater.

Perhaps because the present is in such turmoil, the past retains a great pull on the household of Lovey Ranevskaya. Lovey (Columbus has changed the name from the Russian, Lyubov) has returned to her estate after spending years in Paris embroiled in a scandalous affair--one she began after her young son, Grisha, drowned. In the first act she and her brother, Gaev (the man of "liberal values"), giddily dig into the toys in their old playroom despite the decidedly grim adult matters that must be discussed. The estate is bankrupt, a fact that former slave Lopakin, now a wealthy merchant, tries to communicate to them. His plan for saving it: they need to cut down their beloved but unfruitful orchard and construct summer cottages for the hoi polloi. Lovey is aghast, but when Lopakin confronts her again about the financial crisis in the second act, she behaves as if it's the first time she's heard of it. "What should we do? Tell us, what?" she cries.

Columbus's translation triumphs through its clarity and consistent use of the active voice, and the brisk pace Landau sets eliminates the languor that so often plagues productions of Chekhov. At the same time, she does allow moments of unbearable sadness to reverberate, moments often communicated by decisive physical acts in response to reminders of the past. When Grisha's former tutor, Peter Trofimov, reminds Lovey of her dead son in the first act, she slaps him fiercely. Handed a sheaf of telegrams from Paris, she tears them up with sudden ferocity, declaring "Paris is over."

As Lovey, Amy Morton is characteristically brittle, but here finds a leavening undercurrent of resignation. Though she sometimes seemed uncertain on opening night, I suspect this is a performance that will deepen. Lovey is maddening in her otherworldly passivity but appealingly vulnerable too. And unlike the siblings in Chekhov's Three Sisters, she has enough backbone to get on with her life, going back to whatever awaits her in Paris. She may be sad, but she won't stay mired in the land of her birth.

Though in Brustein's construction Lopakin is a force of darkness, Yasen Peyankov's masterful performance makes the character far more sympathetic than menacing. When he buys the orchard himself late in the play, his gloating speech about rising to power stings--but we also can't help but feel that this pragmatic man (a compassionate conservative?) has perhaps earned the right to gloat. (Of course Lopakin's hardheaded realism is nothing like the current administration's free-spending fiscal policy.)

The dying Chekhov granted nearly all the characters in his last play the possibility of change, except for the ancient servant Firs, played with heartbreaking dignity by Leonard Kraft. Fine performances also come from Francis Guinan as the talkative, self-deluding Gaev and Rondi Reed as perpetual exile Charlotta, the former governess to Lovey's daughter Anya. Charlotta's speech about her uncertain parentage and nationality contains what might be the play's saddest revelation: "I don't have anyone." But Reed's delivery is devoid of self-pity; wearing a military cap and carrying a rifle, she gives the impression that Charlotta, like all the best Chekhov characters, simply soldiers on. Elizabeth Rich as Varya, Lovey's adopted daughter, is in terrific if unusually constrained form as the smoldering chatelaine who's kept the estate running for years. She loves Lopakin, and he's at least amenable to her, but the two can never find a way to express their feelings. If Cherry Orchard is a farce, as its creator maintained, it's farce predicated on the sort of sad, wincing miscues of Lopakin and Varya's final encounter.

Sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen actually manage to capture the primal and supernatural quality Chekhov indicated for the play's famous second-act sound cue: "the sound of a string breaking, a dying sound, a sad sound." Their sound is sad but just unearthly enough to suggest greater forces at work. In the introduction to his book of Chekhov translations, Columbus focuses on that sound as key, noting that "a truly great production of a Chekhov play is a reflection of the time in which it exists." This isn't yet a great production--the characters might be uncertain, but the actors can't be. It's a damn good one, however, and a hopeful reminder in these days that though change is coming, it might not be the cataclysmic change some anticipate.

When: Through 3/5: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7:30 PM. No show Thu 11/25

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted

Price: $45-$60

Info: 312-335-1650

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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