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Dying Way of Life

The Rogue Theatre treats Chekhov's 'Cherry Orchard' as the classic that it is

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The question that drives the action of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard will resonate with Tucsonans: Should a cash-strapped family sell its land to a profit-driven developer?

Yet that question isn't what the play is really about. The Cherry Orchard is a snapshot of Russian society in disintegration, a story of well-meaning fools who can't manage change; as we now know, not even the reformers would handle it with any decency or competence.

That this 1903 play--Chekhov's last--can strike a chord with contemporary audiences despite being tied specifically to its original time and place proves that it's a classic, not just a relic. The Rogue Theatre is giving it a production worthy of a classic, with an exceptional cast and intelligent direction.

Chekhov got his start in the theater writing little farces; the four or five larger plays by which he is best remembered--including The Cherry Orchard--are more serious, yet Chekhov never really stopped thinking of himself as a writer of comedies. He insisted that The Cherry Orchard was essentially a comedy; the play's first director, Konstantin Stanislavsky, read it as a tragedy, and for the past 100 years, hardly anybody has quite understood what to do with the work's humorous elements. For Rogue's production, director Cynthia Meier and her cast don't quite achieve my own ideal for this work--a bittersweet, autumnal, wistfully humorous quality that I've never actually seen brought off--but the tone is light enough to convey the spirit that Chekhov probably intended, without ever undercutting the dignity and humanity of any of the characters, even those most susceptible to caricature.

The assets of this production begin with the uncredited translation, free of the annoying Briticisms that afflict so much Chekhov in English, and eschewing language that is either old-fashioned or distractingly modern-colloquial. I suspect Meier, as she did with The Seagull a few years ago, took the best of what she found among several translations and spruced them up to suit her purposes--and those of Chekhov.

Patty Gallagher, elegant and proud, plays the lead character, Lyubov Ranevskaya, not as the customary oblivious airhead who clings to her cherry orchard because she's too frivolous and self-centered to understand her own financial difficulties, but as a mature woman determined to overcome disappointments in life and love by refusing to give up the property that symbolizes the stability and beauty she knew in the past.

Meanwhile, a family friend named Lopakhin keeps reminding her that she's about to go broke, but she could raise all the money she needs either by selling the orchard or converting it to a tract of summer-rental homes. Lopakhin is a successful businessman, but he can't let himself forget that he comes from a long line of peasants. It's a tricky role; Lopakhin can easily come off as a brute and a schemer, but J. Andrew McGrath shows his sympathetic side without smoothing over his rough edges. Yes, the man can be brusque when he doesn't wish to suffer foolishness, but he also secretly loves Ranevskaya (even though everyone assumes he'll marry her foster daughter), and McGrath demonstrates that Lopakhin's intentions are honorable without sugarcoating the character. He's still enough of a peasant, for example, that he may absently scratch the back of his thigh in polite company. It's a subtle touch, typical of McGrath's delicate balancing act.

Another hard-to-embrace role is that of Ranevskaya's brother, an oddly Russian combination of arrogance and sentimentality. Roger Owen puffs up the character as necessary, but not so much that his occasional moments of insight seem unlikely. Among the other members of the large cast are Arlene Naughton, sober but not inflexible as the one sensible member of Ranevskaya's household; Avis Judd as a hopeful but sure-to-be-disappointed maid; David Morden as a bumbling family retainer; and Steve Cruz, earnest but not humorless as a reform-minded university student.

That student is the future that Chekhov would die without seeing come to pass; the play opened on the eve of the first conflicts leading to the Russian Revolution, a mere four decades after the serfs had been liberated. It was an uneasy, impossible transitional period. Some people, like the revolutionary student, speak of atonement for past injustice, but many of the other characters on Chekhov's stage are locked in an idealized past--not only Ranevskaya, but even an elderly servant (Art Jacobson) who longs for the security of the old feudal system. In the end, that servant is mistakenly locked in the abandoned house, just another dusty object to throw a sheet over.

Throughout the play, director Meier arranges her players as objects when they're not part of the action; in the background, she sorts them into a frozen tableaux, human still-lifes, people stuck in old conversations, caught in emotions they can't shake off, trapped in a time that has already passed.

As further evidence that Rogue, though a language-based company, sees plays as more than just delivery of lines, we have Meier's superb, period-specific costumes, McGrath's spare but evocative and creative sets, and music provided live--before and during the performance--by members of the Arizona Balalaika Orchestra.

The Cherry Orchard may be about a dying way of life, but Rogue assures us that it remains living theater.

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