The Quantum Theatre production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is a play about family, in more ways than one. It is, first and foremost, a comedy about the once-wealthy Ranevsky family, whose members cling desperately to fading grandeur as their estate is put on the auction block to pay off the ruinous debts accrued by their spendthrift matriarch, Lyubov Andreyevna (Karla Boos). The fictional family of the play includes not only blood relatives – Lyubov’s brother, Gayev (Peter Duschenes) and her daughters Varya (Moira Quigley) and Anya (Julia de Avilez Rocha) – but also various servants and hangers-on to the estate, like the nouveau riche businessman Lopakhin (Nick Lehane), whose father and grandfather were serfs on the land; Dunyasha (Zanny Laird), the maidservant; Charlotta (Laurie Klatscher), the girls’ governess; Petya (Joseph McGranaghan), the idealistic former tutor to Lyubov’s deceased son; Pischik (John Shepard), a neighbor and longtime family friend; the hapless “walking disaster” Yepikhodov (Jake Emmerling), the estate accountant; Yasha (Benjamin Viertel), Lyubov’s misanthropic footman; and the ancient Firs (Gregory Lehane), the family’s faithful, doddering butler.
Alert readers will already have spotted the second way this production is about family: the cast includes a real family, in the persons of Gregory Lehane and Laurie Klatscher and their son Nick Lehane, who bring a shared quirky sensibility to the world of the play. Nick plays Lopakhin like a bull in a china shop, awkwardly blunt and bumptious in contrast to the moony airs and graces of the genteel Ranevskys; Gregory’s Firs is a hilariously stubborn curmudgeon; and Klatscher turns the eccentric character of Charlotta into a kind of performing monkey whose very presence offers ironic commentary on the vestigiality of the landed gentry to the future of Russia.
But there’s also another family, of sorts, woven into this production: the artistic team and ensemble include numerous current and former members of the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama community, including alumni Katie Brook (director), Bryce Cutler (scenic design), and Damian E. Dominguez (costume design), in addition to actors Viertel, Laird, and Nick Lehane; faculty members C. Todd Brown (lighting design) and emeritus faculty Gregory Lehane; and current students Madison Gold (stage manager) and Grace Kang (asst. costume designer). For your Tatler, such a “family” reunion only added to the delight of the show.
The production is set outdoors on a multilevel octagonal set that sits between two banks of audience seating. While most of the action plays out in the center of the space, director Brook takes ample advantage of the outdoor area that flanks the set, allowing the characters to escape the confines of the house and roam what feel like distant fields (Peter Brucker’s sound engineering ensures that you hear every word of the play, even when the actors are off in the far distance). Such staging not only adds visual interest to the world of the play but also drives home Chekhov’s piquant satirization of his country’s landed gentry: faced with an existential threat to their home and livelihood, the members of the family put on the blinders of denial and take long leisurely walks. It’s also something of an insider theatrical joke, demonstrating the difference between realism as a style and the real: there would never be room in a “realistic” play to let your actors actually, really, disappear from view and then meander slowly back to the stage. At such moments Brook reminds us, with her own surehanded command of postdramatic staging conventions, that Chekhov’s “realism” was avant-garde in its time, a way of making the familiar strange.
Much of the comedy of this play derives from the fact that pretty much every character is deeply invested in their own, sometimes bizarre, little world, and because of this, when they talk to each other they are often shockingly careless about what they say; that is, they are forthright and candid in ways that people in real life rarely dare to be. Libby Appel’s fine translation of the play delights in its bluntness, producing moments like when characters repeatedly turn to Firs and say: “you will die soon, old man.” Here, too, is another way this is a play about family: the characters don’t pussyfoot around each other because they are all familiar, all orbiting the gravitational pull of the family estate. Brook and her ensemble embrace this aspect of the work, producing a world of richly realized and endearingly self-absorbed individuals who feel no need to hide their thoughts from each other and who stubbornly remain their flawed, desperate selves even in the face of shattering changes to their lives.