The set-up: Recently Houston's theater scene has been blessed by some very fine Chekhov knockoffs: last season's superlative rendition of Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Alley; and, recently, a regional premiere, also superlatively produced, of Aaron Posner's stupid f*****g bird from Stages Rep. Currently at Catastrophic Theatre, Mickle Maher's The Hunchback Variations bases its absurdist filigree upon a Chekhov stage direction. Now, thanks to Classical Theatre Company we have the real thing, Anton Chekhov's last masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard (1904). And I must say, another super production. The execution: If Chekhov had never written a play he'd still be considered one of the greats of literature, based solely on his magnificent short stories, nonfiction, and huge collection of letters. But when he turned to the stage, magic happened. His last four plays are undisputed classics and truly changed the face of theater. He never judges his characters, their faults perfectly clear, but treats them with such fairness and gentle compassion that we see them for the complete people they are. Their humanness, like Shakespeare's gallery, is foremost.
Chekhov's people are foolish, blind, and usually incapable of doing anything about whatever needs to be done. Change, disaster, stares them in the face, threatening fortune or a beloved cherry orchard, but they live in reverie and inaction. Silly and useless, they prattle on when action is most needed, but they're so likable, so like us, that we melt alongside them when the worst, which could have been prevented, happens. Chekhov is one of theater's first moderns.
Orchard could be a primer of all things Chekhov, a comedy of inertia. The provincial estate of brother and sister Lubov and Gaev (Celeste Roberts and Mark Roberts), recently arrived home from having lived in Paris for five years, is to be sold to pay the family's debts. Businessman Lopahkin (Kregg Dailey), son of the family's former serfs, who's swiftly risen into the middle class, advises them to sell off the large cherry orchard for development to stave off the auction. No one heeds his dire predictions. Sell their beloved orchard, the symbol of youth, frivolous happiness, and days gone by, are you crazy? There must some other way to get the mortgage money. Their solutions, when they consider any, are impractical, delusional, or will take too much time.
Lubov can't think of that right now anyway, she's trying, but not to hard, to forget her Parisian no-count lover. And anyway life must go on: naive daughter Anya (Shunté Lofton) seems smitten by rumpled, perpetual student Trofimov (Matthew Keenan), former tutor, whose ardent spouting of coming change in Russia does nothing to spur him forward; older daughter Varya (Erin Kidwell), staunch housekeeper of the estate, pines for the marriage proposal from work-obsessed Lopahkin; clerk and stumble bum Epikhodov (Jeff McMorrough) loves maid Dunyasha (Lindsay Ehrhardt), who fancies herself a lady, but she's more in love with being in love, and now there's snooty valet Yasha (Ben McLaughlin) to tempt.
Old neighbor Pischin (Carl Masterson) is in the same financial straits, always scrambling for money; governess Charlotta (Elizabeth Keel), munching on cucumbers, performs magic tricks to entertain, and chills everyone with her "I am alone, all alone" routine. And then there's Firs (Charles Krohn), the family's ancient footman, who treats his employers, especially Gaev, like wayward children, fussing after them about forgetting overcoats and galoshes.
Chekhov's ensemble is rich, rich at cross purposes and rich in talking about other things than what's being discussed, or what should be discussed. They often go off into miniature arias of their own, or break into duets and trios. These little revealing gems are musical, variations on a theme. Chekhov is a master of understatement and what's hidden beneath the surface. The fate of the family is sad and inevitable, but it's also deserved. Bathed in a comic irony that warms, there are plenty of laughs at their futile attempts to circumvent what's right in front of them. There are no villains in Orchard, nor heroes.
Under Classical's artistic director John Johnston, the comedy has a lively flow, a real heartbeat. Only the "love scene" between Anya and Trofimov seems weighted down and fraught with meaning, as if the ghost of the great Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski, who cemented for generations the notion that Chekhov was heavy and dour, suddenly appeared. Yes, Trofimov is forever fervent and means everything he says about the haunted orchard and how everyone must be redeemed through "strenuous, uninterrupted work," but, when you come right down to it, he's as lazy as Gaev. He pontificates about serfdom and a better world, but he's no more prepared for it as is the dreamy family. He's proud that he's "above love," while sitting next to dewy Anya who's enrapt with the moon, and him.
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Meanwhile, we're enrapt by the ensemble. All are magnificent and get their moment to shine. They work in tandem, finely-tuned to each other, even when their characters are not. I cannot in good conscience single out anyone, for they're all so very fine and memorable. Kudos down the line.
Although the scene changes are nimbly performed to snatches of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Pictures at an Exhibition," they still take too long, and why must we wait at the beginning of the second part to sit through another one. Couldn't it be done during the intermission? Just asking.
Ryan McGettigan's simple settings are evocative without showiness, David Gipson's lighting is dappled and appropriately autumnal; Macy Lyne's period costumes bespeak dachas and Volga nights; and Jon Harvey's sound design, especially the fateful chopping of those fabled cherries, is appropriately mournful. As to Chekhov's mystical sound effect which is heatedly debated at Catastrophic as we speak, Classical gives us what sounds like a tree trunk snapping. It's not the author's "snapping of a string," but it does just right. The verdict: If, for any reason, you think of Chekhov as horribly tragic and doomful, then Classical's magical and buoyant production will right the scales. Chekhov laughs at these useless people, pities them too, and then embraces them.
Yes, the house will be torn down and the orchard uprooted, as are the owners, but there's hope still (if they can change their ways, which is doubtful, but it could happen). Flush with plenty of money from the auction, Lubov and Gaev, with household retinue, return to Paris, where, no doubt, they will blow everything again. Young Anna will teach, and maybe run off with hothead Trofimov; Pischin, too, has come into money suddenly and rushes to pay off his former debts; and Lopahkin finally has the plot of land to add to his growing fortune. Only stalwart old Firs has been left behind in the locked house, forgotten in the rush of leaving. The heat's off, it's a cold October, and he lies down on the divan, now covered in sheets. "Life's gone on as if I've never lived," he mumbles. Outside, the trees fall. Tragic, but comically necessary. The Cherry Orchard continues through April 26 at Classical Theatre Company, 4617Montrose Boulevard. Purchase tickets online atclassicaltheatre.org or call 713-963-9665. $20.