Magnolia Goodman Theatrehorses at the window trap door theatre

In his robust 2004 translation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Curt Columbus uses the word slave to describe the father of Lopakhin, the merchant who buys the estate where his family, well, slaved until Russia’s emancipation of 1861. Previous translators had used peasant or serf, but Columbus knew that for an American audience slavery raises ghosts. In her effective and affecting new adaptation of the same play, now getting its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre, Regina Taylor pushes that resonance further still, moving the action to Atlanta, Georgia, during the civil rights era.

It’s 1963—100 years after America’s Emancipation Proclamation, but still some time before jim crow’s last gasp—and headstrong, clueless Lily Forrest has returned from a trip abroad to find that her family’s fortunes have dried up and their estate, a former plantation, faces foreclosure. Neither she nor her ineffectual brother has a head for business or a facility for facing facts. What they do have are a lot of sentimental notions about the past and a coterie of more or less loyal relatives and retainers, including Lily’s daughters (hopeful, teenage Anna and serious, adopted Ariel); Anna’s spunky governess, Carlotta, a former vaudevillian who claims she lost the role of Prissy in Gone With the Wind to “that Butterfly heifer”; younger black servants with aspirations personal and political; and Samuel, an ancient menial who’s seen to the family since time immemorial.

All of them are tied to the estate through bloodlines tracing back either to slaves or slave owners, and all of them sense that the estate’s status as a limbo-land outside of time can’t last much longer. What with encroaching urban development and greater freedoms for African-Americans, the times they are a-changin’—a prospect some characters view with eager anticipation, some with dread.

Stop there and you’ve got yourself a pretty clever and faithful Chekhov update—already vastly superior to Drowning Crow, Taylor’s 2004 hip-hop take on The Seagull. But Taylor deepens her version of the story by making the Lopakhin character, here called Thomas, its emotional center.

Descended from both white and black residents of the plantation, Thomas has become a successful real estate developer with a pragmatic business sense and—in place of Lopakhin’s coarseness—a ferocious, proud dignity. He recognizes the estate for the monument to oppression it is; his brother was lynched in one of its magnolia trees. Still, the place holds him in a kind of filial bond. After buying the land at auction and scattering Lily and company to the four winds, he immediately orders the magnolia grove chopped down. But as the antediluvian Samuel reminds him, the roots remain.

Magnolias play a large part in Todd Rosenthal’s set design for this production. A massive backdrop depicting a multitude of blossoms bleeds through the green translucent walls of the Forrest home and looms over everything—an ever-present, even sometimes usefully oppressive, reminder of what’s at stake. A good, old-fashioned actor’s director, Anna D. Shapiro prompts solid ensemble work from a cast of 12—all the more impressive considering that Taylor leaves some ancillary characters merely sketched in. Standouts include scene-stealing Roxanne Reese as hammy Carlotta; Ernest Perry Jr., whose Samuel exudes weary wisdom from every pore; and Annette O’Toole, who fills Lily with equal parts resilience and despair.

But the play belongs to John Earl Jelks, quietly commanding as Thomas. Stern and striving, he resembles Shylock in being mistrusted and cut off from the other characters but also better placed than they are to operate in the real world. Jelks subtly tempers this pragmatism, however, with a sense that Thomas will be forever haunted by the ghosts of his forefathers. The roots remain.v