Midway through the first act of Robert Falls’ stellar production of The Cherry Orchard at the Goodman Theatre, the old servant Firs recalls that the orchard used to make money shipping dried cherries to Moscow “by the cartload.” But now, he laments, “Nobody remembers the recipe.”
That’s not a problem at the Goodman. In his valedictory production as artistic director, Falls proves he’s still a top chef who excels at going big even as he gets ready to go home–or on to fresh challenges, at least. Just look at the photo accompanying this review. As stage pictures go, it wouldn’t be out of place at the Art Institute. The grand set, the top-flight actors, the whip-smart adaptation and direction that give Chekhov’s 1903 play palpable relevance in 2023, it’s the recipe for a bittersweet masterpiece. As Firs says, “They knew how to do it in those days.” Falls and his collaborators still know. Best for us to savor this bounty while we can.
The play is set at a moment of great tension in Russia, as the aristocracy hangs on by its fingernails while crass businessmen begin to rise just before the winds of revolution sweep them all into the dustbin of history. Change is in the air. Feels like a prescient choice of material, no?
The large ensemble cast is uniformly strong. Brilliant moments of wit and pathos and broad comedy abound. Kate Fry plays Lyubov Ranevskaya, the woman whose estate (including its vast cherry orchard) soon will go up for public auction to pay her debts, as a spendthrift flibbertigibbet barely able to mask the pain of losing her 7-year-old son in the waters of the Volga river flowing past the home she loves with all her broken heart.
As her brother, Leonid Gayev, Christopher Donahue gamely plumbs the depths of a hopelessly romantic soul who’s as utterly worthless as he is exceedingly verbose. The siblings are pursued incessantly by Kareem Bandealy’s Lopakhin, the son and grandson of slaves on the estate who has become a successful businessman and seeks to prove his worth by brokering the sale of the orchard for summer home plots, thus saving the rest of the place. The intense attraction-repulsion Lopakhin feels for Lyubov is never made explicit in word, but rather by longing looks and treacherous acts.
And through it all shuffles Firs, played with gimlet-eyed, scene-stealing understatement by Fran Guinan, lamenting the day when the serfs were freed and everyone became confused about their place in the world and the natural order of things. Everyone, that is, save Firs, who will serve the family that once enslaved him to the very last.
All the players are noteworthy, including Amanda Drinkall as Dunyasha, the maid with grand ambitions who finds herself way over her head in a tragicomic lovers’ triangle with boorish manservant Yasha (Felipe Carrasco, who makes nasty good work of the role) and the hapless estate clerk Yepikhodov (played with brilliant comic timing and very squeaky boots by Will Allan).
Serving up similarly broad comedy, Janet Ulrich Brooks gives us an antic Charlotta that channels Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blücher. Charlotta, of course, is the governess to Lyubov’s teenage daughter, Anya (Raven Whitley), who falls hard for proto-revolutionary scholar Petya Trofimov (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.), who calls everyone out on their bullshit while wading hip deep in it himself. And don’t forget Alejandra Escalante, who, as Lyubov’s long-suffering oldest daughter, Varya, waits in vain for Lopakhin to propose marriage and perhaps save her from the drudgery of being the only rational member of the family.
It’s a lot. But look at that stage picture again. The director and his troupe hit every mark in a dazzling theatrical feat. It doesn’t top the best of Falls’ collaborations with Brian Dennehy, but as curtain calls go, it’s a rare beauty, and one not to be missed.
(Disclosure: My wife is a member of the Goodman’s leadership team.)
The Cherry Orchard runs through April 30 at the Goodman Theatre.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Liz Lauren