For those still reeling from the laser beams and chartreuse lighting of "A Seagull" at the American National Theater, the Folger's production of "The Cherry Orchard," which opened Tuesday, should prove as comfortable as an old shoe. Indeed, an old shoe is exactly what it is, perfectly straightforward but thoroughly pedestrian.
The challenge of Chekhov is not the old debate over whether he meant to write comedies or dramas; his plays are both, and both sadness and light are augmented by the presence of the other. The hard part of Chekhov is to seek and find in his characters, whose silliness, self-indulgence, laziness, and pettiness are easily apparent, the desperation and pathos of their situation. This "Cherry Orchard," directed by Folger artistic producer John Neville-Andrews, is competent and professional, like a well-typed page, free of typos. But the sentences on this page don't mean anything. In other words, aside from a few performers who are genuinely moving, this production lacks soul.
The set, designed by Ursula Belden, proves to be a metaphor for the scenes it surrounds. Covered with a dark green floral print a la Laura Ashley, the walls move and rejoin to form different rooms in a way that seems at first both pretty and clever. But as the characters talk about their affection for the house, a place supposedly filled with the memories and icons of youth, one realizes that aside from a token hobbyhorse and a few necessary tables and chairs, the rooms are empty. There is no sense of anyone having lived there, let alone generations of a now impecunious family.
Mikel Lambert, aptly cast as the aging beauty Ranevskaya (indeed, one suspects the play was selected for its ripe role for the company's leading lady), appears in one exquisite costume after another. But she is all grande dame, a fount of forced graciousness; she doesn't speak, she intones, presenting the character rather than playing her. Ranevksaya, who has suffered the death of her husband, the drowning of a child and the betrayal of a worthless lover, now faces the loss of her home and its magnificent cherry orchard, through her refusal to confront reality (that is, pay the mortgage). In Lambert's hands, these traumas have all the impact of a broken lunch date.
As her equally feckless brother, Floyd King is a sweet bumbler who has never had to grow up. At the end, when he finally realizes that his home is lost forever, he breaks down in one of the production's rare moments of emotion. Michael Tolaydo is also affecting as the entrepreneurial Lopahin, the Oliver T. Carr of his day. (Tear the cherry orchard down, he urges, and build summer houses to rent to city folks.) Although his mournful expression and sincerity make him rather more sympathetic than he perhaps should be, Tolaydo at least searches for the ambiguities and complexities of his character. (For some inexplicable reason, Neville-Andrews has directed three supernumeraries to upstage Tolaydo during his climactic speech in the third act, having them leave the stage with obvious surreptitiousness.)
Orlagh Cassidy is a pretty ingenue as the youthful Anya, and Nicole Orth-Pallavicini suitably hysterical as the giddy maid, Dunyasha. Rita Litton is strange, but interesting, as the eccentric Charlotta (however, if an actress cannot do ventriloquism, as the script requires, she should be directed to do something else rather than fake it.)
Sybil Lines seems older than the 24 years that Varya is supposed to be, but struggles loyally as the only practical member of the family. She is convincing in her big-sister meddling and officiousness, but verges on being too hateful. Richard Hart, likewise, overdoes his arrogant dandy, the valet Yasha, to the point where one cannot imagine his bosses retaining his services for very long.
Playwright John PiRoman's translation is serviceable, although I found the use of the expression "You're some tomato!" a little jarring. The costumes by Mark Pirolo are lavish and lovely. Unfortunately I found myself looking at them a lot, which I don't think is what Chekhov had in mind.
The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov, directed by John Neville-Andrews, set by Ursula Belden, costumes by Mark Pirolo, lighting by Stuart Duke, choreography by Virginia Freeman. With Mikel Lambert, Orlagh Cassidy, Sybil Lines, Floyd King, Michael Tolaydo, Edward Gero, Jim Beard, Rita Litton, Michael Kramer, Nicole Orth-Pallavicini, Emery Battis, Richard Hart, Michael W. Howell, Kryztov Lindquist, Roger Cox, Scott Bryan and Holly. At the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger through March 30.