Reasonable proposition: Community theaters shouldn’t do Chekhov; successfully mounting his plays requires a sophisticated understanding of character that is way beyond the reach of strictly local talent. Yet, when would we see Chekhov in Nashville if groups like ACT I didn’t give it their best shot? The new production of The Cherry Orchard playing at the Darkhorse Theater through March 20 has too many slow moments and casting problems to be more than prosaic in overall impact. That said, there is enough theatrical posturing here for the viewer at least to revel in the writing, which proves once again the Russian master’s genius.
This is especially so when Marc Mazzone takes center stage as Lopakhin, the former peasant boy who has grown up to become a financial wizard and who now holds in his hands the future of an aristocratic family whose fortunes have been worn away by time, lack of ambition, and a new social order. Mazzone was born to play this role, and he brings it off in confident declamatory style, rightly leaving us wondering to the end if he is hero or villain.
Mazzone is certainly not alone onstage, and almost everybody in this cast finds a way to provide an incisive glimpse into character at some point. John Devine’s direction reaches stasis about three-quarters of the way through Act 1, then plods along to intermission. Things pick up a bit in Act 2, however, and if the performances in general don’t always compel, they do keep us sufficiently attuned to the tale and its broader societal themes.
The author’s great contribution to literature is his unerring sense of human frailty, and The Cherry Orchard introduces one individual after another who is burdened with having to wake up each morning and endure his own personhood. There’s Firs (Hank Gibson), the aging butler losing his grip on reality with every passing minute; or deluded, financially stressed family friend Pishchik, played with surprisingly affecting, amateurish charm by Doug Moore; or Yepikhodov (Bob Roberts), the bumbling clerk for whom self-acceptance has apparently become a way of life, especially in regards to his affection for housekeeper Dunyasha (Holly Hamilton), who rejects him for the opportunistic manservant Yasha (Jon Mayes). Pat Rulon offers a striking if inscrutable performance in the rather quizzical role of Carlotta the governess.
The aristocrats are Lyubov (Esther Huston), her brother Leonid (Brian Cunningham) and her daughters Varya (Sarah Dark) and Anya (Olivia Lovell). Huston is consistent if unspectacular as the matriarch who can’t handle her finances and has a penchant for choosing bad mates. Dark provides a palpably brooding presence as the older sibling who envisions her personal uncertainty clarified by joining a convent. Lovell is well cast as her naive younger sister, ever searching for the silver lining in the family’s cloudy future; yet her pivotal speech about hope lacks punch.
Like Moore, Cunningham almost makes the grade as if by accident, bewilderedly walking through his key role as a man of leisure now faced with the prospect of taking on a real job. “I say things...and I’m a buffoon,” he laments all too keenly, interspersing his speeches with disconcerting references to an imaginary game of billiards. In a play filled with classically Chekhovian personae, Leonid is one of the big fish; Cunningham occasionally stumbles into clarity, but one wishes someone else were working this critical role to its full potential.
Finally, there is Erik Wagner as Petya, the family tutor, a man who finds himself poised psychically somewhere between the dying upper class and the rising serf class. He gives a quirky performance, to be sure, though it’s unclear how intentionally. Sometimes he makes perfect sense; other times, he is self-conscious to distraction.
This Cherry Orchard is not an exercise in futility. The script alone doles out insights aplenty, and the occasionally poignant characterizations evoke legit laughter. Yet audiences are still counseled to bring their patience to the theater.
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