‘The Cherry Orchard’ at People’s Light

The times they are a-changin'

Just as Charles Dickens chronicled the ravages of the Industrial Revolution on Victorian England in books like Hard Times, so too did Anton Chekhov write about the effects of social and economic upheavals in late czarist Russia on the people of his time.

Clinging to the past: Mary McDonnell and David Strathairn. (Photo: Mark Garvin)

To stem unrest, Czar Alexander II in 1861 emancipated millions of Russian serfs. The move had unintended consequences: The serfs were left with little to support themselves and the former owners, with little actual capital, had no means to run the estates. By the turn of the 20th century, half of the private land in Russia was mortgaged, and the middle class was on the ascendancy. By 1903, when Chekhov wrote his last play, The Cherry Orchard, Russia was only 14 years away from a revolution that would blow the old order to pieces.

People's Light & Theatre Company in Malvern is currently presenting a fine revival of The Cherry Orchard featuring screen actors Mary McDonnell and David Strathairn. The play, adapted here by McCarter Theatre artistic director Emily Mann, deals with Chekhov's common themes: the old Russian aristocracy giving way to the new middle class, the relentlessness of change, and the appeal of nostalgia in an expanding world. Chekhov subtitled The Cherry Orchard "a comedy in four acts," and he paints his characters of all classes with a more satirical brush than he did in more somber works like Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters.

Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya (McDonnell) and her brother Gayev (Strathairn), members of the old landed gentry, return to their ancestral estate just as it is about to be auctioned off to pay off debts. Lopakhin (Pete Pryor), a well-to-do merchant whose father and grandfather once worked as serfs on the estate, tries to convince Ranevskaya to chop down the family's treasured cherry orchard, subdivide the property, and build rental villas. But she and her brother resist and try to cling to remnants of their past.

Serenity becomes self-delusion

McDonnell captures Ranevskaya's aristocratic noblesse oblige and her serenity, which quickly morphs into a sense of self-delusion. Strathairn's Gayev is more overtly comic, responding to Lopakhin's entreaties with haughty indignation and pontificating until his nieces urge him to "keep quiet." Pryor's Lopakhin powerfully represents the forces of modernity and capitalism that have supplanted the aristocrats' feudal society.

Under Abigail Adams's able direction, the People's Light ensemble provides fine support. Standouts in the large cast include Teri Lamm, superb as Ranevskaya's high-strung adopted daughter, who has an on-again, off-again relationship with Lopakhin; Sanjit De Silva as Petya, a high-minded student who was once tutor to Ranevskaya's late son; Graham Smith as Firs, an 87-year-old valet who clings to the past even more tenaciously than his masters; and Luigi Sottile as Yasha, an opportunistic young footman.

Marla J. Jurglanis's period costumes are attractive, and lighting designer Dennis Parichy adeptly enhances the play's various moods. Tony Straiges's set variously depicts rooms in the family mansion and a meadow on the grounds, with a telephone pole looming on the side of the stage, suggesting the modern world that is quickly supplanting the old.

The production hits the play's raw emotional nerve and drives home its timeless themes. One comes away hoping that some current author will write a great play about the social, economic, and personal upheavals caused by the Internet.

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