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by Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Reprinted with permission of The Honolulu Advertiser, © 2007 Honolulu Advertiser
 
Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is a split personality of a play.

While written as a comedy, the play struck its first success in 1904 as a tragedy in the hands of director Konstantin Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre. The chore of balancing both elements has been left to every subsequent production.

Director Joyce Maltby chooses comedy for the version now playing at Hawai‘i Pacific University. With her characteristically careful control of the cast and the script, she allows surface sympathy for these failed Russian aristocrats to seep out from among their foibles—but never deep pity.
The threshold choice is an important one.

Tragedy arises when the central characters are portrayed as victims of a changing society they can neither understand nor manipulate. Comedy results when they senselessly insist on repeating personal flaws and slide inevitably toward irrelevancy.

In the HPU production, the final outcome is inevitable and the behavior of the central characters is often frivolous and—at best—sadly futile.

The focal point of the family is Liubov Ranyevskaya, played by Eden-Lee Murray with exhausted charm and vain inability to acknowledge the final effect of a string of bad choices. Widowed from an alcoholic husband and impoverished by her own extravagance, she returns to the family estate after a five-year absence. Home, it seems, is where Ranyevskaya goes when all else has failed.

With her come Gayev (John Hunt), her idle, ineffectual brother, and daughter Anya (Chelsea Jones) — both flotsam and jetsam in Ranyevskaya’s careless wake. They are met by Ranyevskaya’s adopted daughter Varya (Melinda Maltby), who has been trying to manage the estate, family servants, and neighbors.

The theme of the play is never in doubt and delivered in capital letters in the American translation by Paul Schmidt.

“ You can’t go back,” lectures Derek Calibre as the perpetual graduate student Trofimov. “Everything here ended a long time ago.”

“ Without my cherry orchard,” counters Ranyevskaya, “My life makes no sense.”

The family plays itself out over four acts as Gayev makes speeches to a bookcase, the daughters’ love interests fizzle, and the weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of the supporting characters receive their airing.

But the most interesting sidelight in the director’s comic approach is that the character of Lopakhin (James Locke) is rehabilitated from his original tragic incarnation. He’s no longer old, greedy, and a soulless symbol of the rising Russian middle class.

Locke’s performance as Lopakhin makes him almost someone to root for. A young, self-made businessman, he has risen above his family’s serf origins. When Ranyevskaya won’t take his advice, he exercises it himself and regards his purchase of the estate as a personal triumph. Yet he is unable to see the greater cost of his purchase in terms of the social change that devalues the beauty of the past.

Granted, much of the aristocratic past deserved to go. But if we care deeply for Ranyevskaya’s personal losses rather than her material ones and prefer romance over realism, the play remains strongly tragic.

Comedy or tragedy, the cherry orchard falls to the ax as each of the characters suffers from the changing social order. While we may laugh at their blind spots, we can’t help but sigh for their consequences.

THE CHERRY ORCHARD
Paul and Vi Loo Theatre, HPU, Kane‘ohe:

7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays through April 29;

$20 general admission;

$14 seniors, military, students, HPU faculty and staff;

$3 HPU students;

Special discounts available for Thursdays and for
Hawai‘i State Theatre Council members.
Call 375-1282 for reservations.

 

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