"The Cherry Orchard" at the IU Theatre is long time faculty member and director Howard Jensen’s departing gift. He’s said that Chekhov’s final play is his favorite outside of Shakespeare and the IU production makes a strong case.
In 1903, in the chaos of the final days of the once opulent Ranevskaya Estate Chekhov presents a world of change. His focus is not on the plot. There’s never a doubt that the cherry orchard will fall to the axe of suburban development. The richness is in the comedy, the tragedy and the complex humanity of the characters.
Solidly in the past is the aged servant Firs, a stolidly comical Brendan Pentzell. Firs was a serf, but says that the tragedy of Russian society was the freeing of the serfs. Becoming the past are the silly Ranevskaya played with a beautifully lovely pathos by Vanessa Brenchley, her brother Gayev, the redoubtable Scot Purkeypile, and their neighbor, the oafish Simeonov-Pischik, Mike Mauloff.
The present in "The Cherry Orchard" is the enterprising young peasant millionaire Lophakin, played with engaging charm by Colin Donnell, the durable governess Charlotta, Kate Braun, and the crass young servant Yasha, Darby Cicci. The future is the student Trofimov, Dustin Henderlong, and the family’s youngest daughter Anya, Kacie Leblong.
So there’s a tidy schematic, the solid past of the serfs, the sliding toward the past of the aristocracy, the rise of the bourgeois entrepreneur and the visionary student futurist. But, with Chekhov the past is never to be uncritically revered, the present to be saluted without question, or the future to be looked toward without some thoughts. Certainly old Firs memory of a golden age before emancipation is questionable. The old land-owners Ranevskay, Gayev and even Simeonov-Pischik represent a charm and a level of culture despite their doomed silliness. The businessman Lophakin can make millions, but he is incapable of proposing to Varya, Allison Batty, the woman who loves him. The student Trofimov has dreams of the future and life away from the confines of the country, but his income is from translating other people’s work.
In Howard Jensen’s production at IU, the world of "The Cherry Orchard" is a fascinating place, both comical and touching, with wonderful characters whose actions at first surprise us and then seem inevitable. Fred Duer’s economical scenic design on a raked stage makes the actors look larger than life and extra present. The costumes by Dixon Reynolds are richly detailed and very much a part of the characters. The music directed by Motaki Kashino was a nice touch, always appropriately placed.
The IU Theatre’s production of Chekhov’s "The Cherry Orchard" directed by Howard Jensen plays each evening this week through Saturday.