Review: Goodman’s The Cherry Orchard Presents Robert Falls’ Talent in Full Bloom
For more than 35 years, Robert Falls has led the Goodman Theatre to become one of the country’s very best regional houses. Past triumphs include both starry Broadway transfers (Night of the Iguana, Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey Into Night—a production that featured the single greatest stage performance I have ever been lucky enough to witness… Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Tyrone), and nurturing the talents of Chicago discoveries, like the now-established playwright Rebecca Gilman (Boy Gets Girl, and Spinning into Butter among others.)
Falls is now making his swan song as Goodman artistic director with his typically thoughtful direction of The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov’s suitably elegiac final play. Alternatively received by spectators and critics alike as either a tender farewell to a faded world or a cutting indictment of an obsolete (and oppressive) society— it is perhaps, both—The Cherry Orchard has been perplexing and captivating theatergoers since its first production. (When Chekhov objected to famed Moscow Art Theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski staging the show as a tragedy; the playwright insisted that he had written a comedy.)
Never one to be satisfied with simple approaches, Falls has delivered us both—the sad, yet warmly funny story of a faded aristocratic family and their hangers-on teetering on the brink of oblivion. Who can be surprised that, after more than two hours and four acts of their closely observed foibles and follies, the final touching scene—spoiler alert—of the aging faithful family retainer Firs (the always superb Francis Guinan), left behind with the luggage, moves the audience to simultaneous laughter and tears?
Appropriately staged for two of its four acts in a former children’s nursery, this production is a veritable playroom for some of the most acclaimed actors of the Chicago stage. Kate Fry holds center stage as the bewildered and beleaguered Lyubov Ranevskaya, a proto-Blanche Dubois of sorts, freshly returned to Russia from a ruinous stay in France and not at all ready to face the destruction of her home, her estate and her receding privilege. Fry’s Lyubov is by turns endearing (she constantly gives away whatever small sum of cash she has) and pitiable (she’s fleeing both the memory of an early widowhood, the drowning of a 7-year-old son and her disastrous romantic liaison with a grasping conman).
Fry is joined by Christopher Donahue, who plays her ineffectual daydreaming brother Leonid, an almost stock comic character that Donahue manages to imbue with deep wells of pathos through his sensitive portrayal of a man-child completely unprepared for life outside the billiard room. Together, they stumble toward the inevitable loss of the eponymous orchard and their outmoded lilies-of-the-field existence.
Waiting to meet them on the other side is another stock character, the improbably successful peasant-made-good businessman Yermolai Lopakhin (Kareem Bandealy). The once humble Lopakhin, now the richest man around, offers both a means of escape to the family (he’s constantly telling them how to avoid their financial ruin and make the estate profitable again) and their eventual doom—he is, of course, the eventual buyer and new owner of the orchard at the fateful concluding auction. His uncontained glee at ending up the owner of an estate on which his father and grandfather were slaves is a necessary counterpoint to the sympathy both Chekhov and Falls’ production creates for the hopelessly fading aristocrats.
The Cherry Orchard is about goodbyes—a delicately observed farewell and uncertain wait for the future. It makes an appropriate capstone to Falls’ career as Goodman artistic director and raises the question about what’s next, not only for the Goodman under the new leadership of Falls’ successor Susan Booth, but also for Falls himself. He may be concluding his run at the helm of the Goodman, but he is certainly not done with Chicago theater. I am eager to see what comes next.
The Cherry Orchard has been extended thru May 7 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets are available at www.goodmantheatre.org. Running time is 2 hours, 40 minutes, including one intermission.
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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