European Repertory Company

at the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, Baird Hall

Anton Chekhov called The Cherry Orchard a comedy. Konstantin Stanislavsky called it “a ponderous drama of Russian life.” Ever since its 1904 debut, directors bold enough to attempt the play have been forced to walk a tightrope between comedy and pathos, and the European Repertory Company’s current production walks that treacherous highwire gracelessly.

In the play, the genteel Madam Ranevskaya is in danger of losing her beloved family estate and its ancient cherry orchard. She and her family are unable to confront the situation, ignoring the sensible advice of Lopakhin, a family friend. A onetime peasant who became a successful businessman while Ranevskaya was abroad, Lopakhin ends up buying the estate–the place where his father was once a slave. For him this is both a joyous liberation and a stunning betrayal of Ranevskaya, the woman he worships.

As a portrait of an elite class doomed to be displaced, The Cherry Orchard is pretty heavy. But Chekhov was less interested in social commentary than in people, and his humor comes through in the often muted and misdirected passions of his characters. Their struggle to balance the passionate with the petty is what makes his plays so funny and so heartbreaking.

In a press release, the European Repertory Company promises a production of The Cherry Orchard that concentrates on its comedy, avoiding “the American trap” of presenting the play as melodrama. Though it’s news to me that melodramatic Chekhov is peculiar to American productions, I was relieved to expect a light touch.

Relief turned quickly to dismay, however, when I found that Lopakhin had a lisp and when the clerk, Yepikhodov (Yakov Neiditch), entered with a pratfall almost vaudevillian in scope. So much for lightness of touch. The lisp may be unintentional, but it’s still unfortunate: Lopakhin comes off as an effete clown, all wrong for a peasant. He should be harder to ignore. Bill Drew is a fine actor, he just seems hopelessly miscast. Chekhov paints Yepikhodov as a graceless young man unrequited in love. Sure he’s funny, but he’s not a joke and shouldn’t serve as an excuse for bad slapstick. In his quest for comedy, director Zbigniew Zasadny robs the smaller roles of any humanity. Such characters as Dunyasha the maid (Jennifer Riskind) and Yasha the valet (played with handwringing villainy by Piotr Plachta) serve simply to amuse, so when Yepikhodov hints at suicide because Dunyasha will not return his affections, the threat carries no pain.

Ranevskaya (Andrea Urban) and her family are portrayed as superficial, and here Zasadny is on the right track. But he forgets they’re superficial people. Urban’s Ranevskaya is colorless, completely passionless except when Zasadny allows her to wallow in sorrow (usually while a mournful mandolin plays in the background–it’s a good thing we haven’t fallen into the trap of melodrama here). It would be more interesting to see Ranevskaya fight to maintain equilibrium than indulge in graceful fits of tears. As daughter Varya, Jennifer Roberts resists sentimentality, and as a result her sorrows are both ridiculous and heartbreaking. David M. Ghilardi’s portrayal of Ranevskaya’s useless gentleman brother Gayev as unkempt and continuously cackling is puzzling–it’s as though Dickens’s Fagin had wandered out of Oliver Twist and onto the Chekhov set. Doubly disturbing is his behavior with his niece Anya (an endearing Debi Makler), whom costume designer Malgorzata Koscielak has outfitted in a short little-girl frock. His horseplay with her suggests a touch of wickedness that would have troubled the highly moral Chekhov.

Zasadny suggests that Ranevskaya and her people have lost their land because they’ve lost any spiritual connection to it–that they’ve been cast out of the garden. While that’s an interesting idea, it seems to me these people lack not a spiritual connection with nature but any sense of reality. Ranevskaya loses the cherry orchard in part because she’s reluctant to chop it down. So Zasadny’s grand theatrical gesture of placing a Gypsy onstage–representing this spiritual link–to observe the action and dances between acts seems merely inappropriate, like so much of the humor and so much of the suffering here. Veering from buffoonery to high tragedy, this production misses entirely the tightrope that Chekhov stretched so brilliantly between the two. It’s time directors stopped interpreting Chekhov and started trusting him.