Theater Review: Actors’ Shakespeare Project Mounts a Memorable “Cherry Orchard”

Director Melia Bensussen handles the dialogue skillfully, but she also has an eye for creating vivid stage pictures which reinforce Chekhov’s dramatic themes.

The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Melia Bensussen. staged by Actors’ Shakespeare Project at The Dane Estate, Pine Manor College, Chestnut Hill, through March 9.


Photo: Marianna Bassham (Varya), Jake Berker (Boris Eimoenov-Pischin), and Marya Lowry (Lyubov Andreyevna Ranyevskaya) in the ASP’s production of “The Cherry Orchard.” Photo: Stratton McCrady.

By Iris Fanger

Despite the piles of snow on the ground, inside the music room of the gracious manor house on the Dane Estate in Chestnut Hill it feels as if you would catch a glimpse of the glorious blossoms of The Cherry Orchard through the windows. Actors’ Shakespeare Project has staged a production of Anton Chekhov’s tragi-comedy that depends as much on the atmosphere of the surroundings as on the company’s actors. The setting evokes a spacious but faded family space, resonating with charm and nostalgia for days gone by.

On seeing the play again, one is struck by Chekhov’s prescience in 1904, when he wrote the last of his great works shortly before his death at age 44. The characters are emblematic of the strains in Russian society that were soon to break apart: the bankrupt landed aristocrats, Madame Ranyevskaya and her brother, Gaev, who have neither worked nor made a serious contribution to society; the talky intellectual, Trofimov, unable to bring his vision of a better future to fruition, and the towering but apologetic peasant, Lopakhin, who through his own labor will literally inherit the earth. These are the main characters in the play, whose action or inaction will determine the course of the lives of the people around them.

The country estate where the play is set is a visible symbol of the detritus of the past that must be swept away before the new order can prevail, along with the orchard, whose trees bear fruit that is no longer sent to market. This carefully shaded production heightens the “suspension of disbelief” necessary for a memorable evening in the theater by having its actors move around a room rather than behind a proscenium arch. Director Melia Bensussen has choreographed the flow of the characters throughout the two-storied chamber, often blocking the action within inches of the audience.

The plot is simple: Madame Ranyevskaya who has been living in Paris for a number of years with an inconstant lover returns to her childhood home in Russia. The estate is scheduled to be sold unless she and her brother come up with funds to cover the interest on the mortgage. She and Gaev, who has lived there, along side her daughter, Anya, and step-daughter, Varya, have run through the family fortune. The staff on the estate includes the ambitious servant, Yasha, who has been in Paris with Ranyevskaya; the housemaid, Dunyasha, and the proud, ancient valet, Fiers, who hovers over Gaev as if he were still a child. Pishchik, a neighbor, also in arrears on his mortgage, continually begs for a loan. Trofimov, perennial student and former tutor to Ranyevskaya’s son who drowned six years earlier, is also in the neighborhood, but on his way back to classes in Moscow.

While Gaev dreams up futile schemes to raise the money, Lopakhin has a plan. He begs them to tear down the house and chop down the cherry orchard in order to sell lots to the tourists who are increasingly coming to the area. Neither Ranyevskaya nor Gaev will listen to his solution. The impasse is only resolved when Lopakhin, whose father and grandfather were serfs owned by the family, buys their property at auction. An important sub-plot is the relationship between Varya and Lopakhin. The latter who is expected to ask her to marry him but he does not — because he cannot act on his emotions in contrast to his work ethic, which drives him and has made him a rich man.

Four towering performances anchor the ensemble of ASP players: Marya Lowry as the impulsive Ranyevskaya who cannot control her desires; Marianna Bassham as the unhappy martinet, Varya; Arthur Waldstein, cast as the loyal manservant, Fiers, and especially Steven Barkhimer as the awkward Lopakhin, boastful and capable, proud yet ill-at-ease in the new role his money has thrust upon him.

The first act plays as a series of biographical sketches in which the individual characters seem to exist in isolation, unable or unwilling to listen to each other. The production pulls together after intermission when the urgency of the situation finally forces the characters to pay attention to their shared predicament.

She handles the dialogue skillfully, but Bensussen also has an eye for creating memorable stage pictures which reinforce the dramatic themes. When the famous sound of a breaking string is heard, the three women seated together on a round settee – Ranyevskaya, Varya, and Anya — freeze as if they cannot comprehend the meaning but understand that their lives have been forever changed. The final scene between Varya, radiant at the prospect of the longed-for proposal, and the tongue-tied Lopakhin is a marvel of comic timing at the service of deep heart-break. Although the Revolution was more than a decade away, Chekhov understood that there could be no happy endings for these characters or for Mother Russia.

Iris Fanger is a theater and dance critic based in Boston. She has written reviews and feature articles for the Boston Herald, Boston Phoenix, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, and Patriot Ledger as well as for Dance Magazine and Dancing Times (London).

Former director of the Harvard Summer Dance Center, 1977-1995, she has taught at Lesley Graduate School and Tufts University, as well as Harvard and M.I.T. She received the 2005 Dance Champion Award from the Boston Dance Alliance and in 2008, the Outstanding Career Achievement Award from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts. She lectures widely on dance and theater history.

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