Review: Washington Shakespeare Company's 'The Cherry Orchard' at Clark Street Playhouse

Adam Jonas Segaller as Lopakhin in the unconventional production.
Adam Jonas Segaller as Lopakhin in the unconventional production. (By Raymond L. Gniewek)
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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 24, 2009

Doom and gloom meet zippy and trippy in the Washington Shakespeare Company's "The Cherry Orchard," Anton Chekhov's classic about crippling debt and emotional miscues among the soon-to-be-landless Russian gentry.

Directors Christopher Henley and Gaurav Gopalan stage the play as a dream, which means that anything goes as Chekhov's self-absorbed characters preen and fume while avoiding the momentous change that many of them can't believe in. This wide-open, carnival approach can be brittle, and it taxes patience early on with a nearly incomprehensible opening-dance fantasia, followed by the introduction of four raccoon-eyed spirits (think Edward Gorey drawings) who silently but conspicuously haunt the household.

The heavy-handed production extends to Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden's set, a decaying white platform atop a pile of household debris that announces all its meaning at first glance. Add a performance style that has actors shrieking with surprise and cackling with mordant glee (whenever they're not quoting 20th-century songs), and you have the makings of a long, nerve-plucking night.

Yet after an hour on this hard road, the show somehow begins to bring out some of the intriguing, complicated chords in Chekhov's tantalizing play. It's not just that the acting settles down -- though it does, especially once Lynn Sharp Spears asserts herself as the indomitably beautiful and self-deceiving Ranevskaya. It's that the particular ways that these extravagantly rendered figures fail to hang together begin to be something of a virtue.

Spears plays the widowed landowner with a layer of rosy sentiment that barely covers her deep scars, and it's refreshing to have a character make a genuine emotional claim (even if nobody else exactly follows suit). As Lopakhin, the serf-turned-successful-businessman who can't help idolizing Ranevskaya, Adam Jonas Segaller acts with a brusque, blue-collar cadence and a horrendous bray-and-snort laugh. It's a broad sendup of the character, yet Segaller finds real depths. In the financial drama, Lopakhin's a winner, but it's touching -- if only briefly -- to watch him botch matters of the heart.

Fine work emerges from other unconventional roots. Sara Barker plays Varya, Ranevskaya's daughter, as austere, lovely and sad; she's practically a Chekhovian archetype until she cues a musician with, "Hit it, Tom!" Yet Barker functions noticeably well in both worlds -- the theatrically dreamy and the emotionally real -- as does John Moletress, who plays the governess Charlotta in drag. Moletress is commanding in the part (a confused role, by nature), and he looks better than almost anyone in Zoe Cowan's vaguely 1950s costumes.

It's still a fussy production, filled with gambits that work (Heather Haney's lively choreography to Russian-inflected house music) and others that don't (having the actors announce "Act 1," "Act 2," etc.), plus a cast that's not wholly up to the task of flinging bodies while baring souls. Slapstick and whimsy come early and often, but the show is almost fatally slow to find its Chekhovian soul.

The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov, translated by Laurence Senelick. Directed by Christopher Henley and Gaurav Gopalan. Lights, Jason Aufdem-Brinke; sound design, Zoe Cowan. With John Geoffrion, Melissa Marie Hmelnicky, D.S.A. Steen, Kim Curtis, Evan Crump, K. Clare Johnson, Richard Mancini, Jay Saunders, Thomas Wood, Dior Ashley Brown, Erin Kaufman and Julie Roundtree. About 2 hours and 35 minutes. Through Feb. 15 at the Clark Street Playhouse, 601 Clark St., Arlington. Call 703-418-4808 or visit

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