Endings & Beginnings

The Cherry Orchard

Guthrie Theater

A WHITE FILAMENT arches above the Guthrie stage in the production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. In composition, it resembles a polymer mesh as woven from the dust and cobwebs covering Miss Havisham's back room in Great Expectations. The translucent structure, designed by Desmond Heeley, spans from the floor, stage right, over set and actors both, an open parenthesis, or a tsunami on the verge of breaking. Within the context of the play--the bleakly comic story of a turn-of-the-century Russian family at the cusp of dissolution and bankruptcy--the set piece seems to represent a looming manifestation of a halcyon past gone to rot.

Just as The Cherry Orchard observes a transitional Russia, its performance here marks a watershed moment for the Guthrie itself: the arrival of new Artistic Director Joe Dowling. If the hype is to be believed, sagging attendance and unpopular play selection have left Sir Tyrone Guthrie's glorious mission in the same precarious condition as the characters under Heeley's ominous wave. And now, the accounts seem to say, here comes droopy-eyed Dowling, surfing a pipeline all the way from Ireland's Abbey Theatre, the whole of the Guthrie resting Atlas-like on his shoulders.

The good news--for partisans of quality institutional theater, at least--is that Dowling's first production mostly fulfills those great expectations. To begin, he aims to please (according to some, his predecessor did not), which means that this Cherry Orchard fulfills the playwright's comic, intentions. Chekhov, who once decried the tendency to "turn [his] characters into crybabies," lampoons the imprudence of the disintegrating upper class, the impudence of the new peasantry, and the insensitivity of the middle classes.

But the playwright's tone is fickle as quicksilver. In one line the goutish neighbor Pishchik is, in his sleep, asking landowner Lyubov for loans. A moment later, Lyubov's adopted daughter Varya speaks in alarm: "We have nothing," she says, "nothing at all." With only a few subtle lighting cues, Dowling's physically inventive direction turns the comedy on and off like a faucet--although some of the audience's more misplaced laughs suggest inadvertent leakage. At other times, Dowling runs the lines of several characters together, forming an ambiguous, Altman-esque chatter.

For all the noise surrounding the return of Guthrie graduate Helen Carey to the lead role of Lyubov, she only seems to awaken in the second act of the play, as if having realized the show not only will go on without her, but practically has. And then suddenly she is dashing across the stage, full of grace, flirting with Trofimov--her daughter's idealistic young suitor, who pronounces himself "above love"--and also exposing the hackneyed naiveté that runs through all angry young men. "It's not purity with you," she says, "it's simple prudery." Lyubov, aware that she is both as beautiful and obsolete as her orchard, throws herself headlong into decline, sleeping with scoundrels and squandering her mortgaged money by the fistful; her modern equivalent might be the sage but talentless scions of Hollywood royalty.

Lyubov's brother, Gayev, internalizes the same impulses. Unlike tolerant Lyubov, Gayev deplores the vulgarity of the rising merchant class (represented here by Lopakhin, the rich son of a serf). In the same vein, he depends on Firs, his 87-year-old manservant, to dress him. As splendidly played by a Dowling import, Donal Donnelly, there is an undernourished quality to Gayev, something almost inbred. In him, the virtues of male nobility have been diluted to the weakest titration; he is at once feeble and fastidious, given to grandiloquent declarations and nervous behavioral tics. Donnelly brings a twinkle of dewy-eyed desperation to the part, a mute frustration that never quite translates into action. Lyubov sees the ghost of their mother in the orchard and Gayev is at the window in a second, trembling, ready to believe.

While Helen Carey is stepping timidly through the first act, Stephen Pelinski politely seizes the play--as his character, Lopakhin, will seize the orchard itself. Solicitous around the nobility who once owned his family, Lopakhin cannot stifle his outspoken faith in progress and productivity. "Sometimes when I can't sleep," he says, "I think, 'We've been given vast forests, boundless fields, broad horizons; we who live here--we ought to be giants.'" That this will come about through the extinction of more delicate creatures is the inevitability of The Cherry Orchard--a fate bigger than Lopakhin's excusable philistinism.

At times, a similar lack of sophistication mars the performances of a few of the cast. Neither of Lyubov's daughters is particularly good; other characters seem a little too aware of their status as comic relief. But ultimately, the Dowling era of renewed commitment to popular, traditional theater enjoys a fine start here. Chopping down some dead wood at the Guthrie might not prove a bad idea. CP

The Cherry Orchard runs through July 14; call 377-2224.

 
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