Perhaps the most underrated element in the theater is set design. A backdrop, in the right hands, is as crucial a character as the lead actor. The Hilberry Theatre’s production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard proves the point. Scenic designer Larry Kaushansky has taken a large piece of drywall, attached a few boxes to it and then printed a huge mural of a cherry orchard onto it. The effect is stunning, almost like a David Hockney photo collage. Firs (Andrew Huff), the butler, totters onstage and pushes open two panels. He turns a third around to reveal a bookcase. Home and orchard become one. At times, the orchard seems to be in winter sleep, at others, in full bloom. Near the end of the first act, as the characters watch the sunset, the orchard glows with beauty. Not a word is needed.
The Cherry Orchard, in many ways, is a tone poem. The plot is minimal. Madame Ranevskaya (Shelley Gaza) has returned from the Continent to oversee the auction of her family homestead. After the deaths of her husband and son, she left for France, only to lose her heart to a succession of cads and her wealth to a money-pit villa on the Riviera. A former serf of hers, Lopakhin (Seth Amadei), urges her to sell immediately. Nouveau-riche entrepreneurs such as him can’t wait to convert the land into retirement homes. All around the Madame is an entourage of freeloaders, servants and hapless relatives, each with their own reasons for wanting to keep the property.
The genius of Chekhov is twofold. First, he’s guilty — gloriously so — of cruel and unusual ambiguity. There is no villain in this play. Nor do the undercurrents of melancholy and fear pull under his optimistic faith in freedom. Yet one is only as free as one’s neighbors and friends. And one can only be happy in their company. Why then is the mood of this production so somber?
The Erik Satie musical interludes between scenes are totally unnecessary and editorial. The set is all that’s needed. The cast on the whole needs to quicken the pace and brighten their mood. Only Eddie Collins and Aaron Moore really get into the spirit of the thing. Collins plays Gayev as broadly as possible; he’s totally oblivious to the potential ruin of his family as he minces through one ridiculous soliloquy after another. Likewise, Moore gives Pishchick, a former serf forever looking for a handout, just enough pathos to deepen the one-note comedy of the character.
Then there’s Amanda Jones. In a previous Hilberry outing, The Philadelphia Story, she played the little sister of a social-climbing family on the eve of a wedding. Jones was radiant in the part, perfectly capturing the mixed emotions of a young girl anxious to experience the adventures of adult life, yet leery of the risks involved. Here she accomplishes much the same beguiling effect as Anya, Madame’s daughter. Does she understand a word that the callow idealist, Trofimov (Nick DePinto), spouts when they’re alone in the orchard? Of course not. The girl is infatuated with his youth, his dreaminess and how he makes her feel. It would be heartbreaking if it weren’t so amusing: A youth’s idiotic hope for communism begets a young girl’s crush.
Chekhov’s other touch of brilliance was his ability to discuss the vexing issue of class with wit and verve. His characters don’t pontificate or preach. They remember. They dream. They live. If the aristocratic order in which Madame Ranevskaya has thrived is on the wane, we feel her pain. The woman’s a dingbat, but she’s lived and loved honestly on the assumption that the money would never dry up. Can she be condemned for that? A good heart is a timeless asset. The Stepford Wives of Enron, the ones you see lining up to bask in the glow of George W. Bush at Republican Party fund-raisers, do they have Madame’s humanity?
Indeed, we need Chekhov now more than ever. As the world grows more complicated and seemingly capricious, many react against change with knee-jerk sentiments of belligerence, piety and self-righteousness. The Reaganism that Bush and friends embrace is the same sort of nostalgic poison that the good Madame struggles to escape. The past is the past. Reality is king and if you’re not tuned in to it, you’re going to get aced.
The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov is at the Hilberry Theatre (corner of Cass and West Hancock, Detroit) through May 17. For tickets and further information, call the Wayne State University Theatre box office at 313-577-2972.Timothy Dugdale writes about theater for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]