THE GRACIOUS and graceful enactment of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" at the Shakespeare Theater at the Folger is occasioned by a flavorful new translation. John PiRoman has maintained Chekhov's meaning, while filtering it through a contemporary and colloquial American sensibility.
Chekhov insisted his plays were comedies, (though he certainly is not the Russian Neil Simon as PiRoman has called him), and here he gently ridicules his ineffectual characters and their vague ambitions and love pursuits.
But beneath the odd farce of "The Cherry Orchard" is a graver matter, the loss of a beloved family estate, through which Chekhov predicts the passing of an era, the slow decay of the old Russia.
Threatened with the loss of their land, the deep-in-debt aristocrats of the Ranevskaya family refuse to listen to reason, wringing their hands but continuing their spendthrift ways. Nouveau-riche merchant Lopahin, descended from the Ranevskaya family's serfs, tries to advise them. Pointedly ignored, he buys the place and evicts the family, planning to chop down the orchard and develop it for peasant housing.
At the loss of the orchard, marked by the sound of a breaking string, the Ranevskayas make only a half-hearted show of emotion -- they are too superficial to be deeply moved by their loss. Even though they have been made obsolete, they shrug; life goes on.
John Neville-Andrews directs with a playful yet faithful hand, and the performances are generally capable, led by an admirably modulated duet between Mikel Lambert and Floyd King as matriarchal Liubov and musing Gaev, the aristocratic sister and brother.
Emery Battis is touching as loyal Firs, Gaev's doddering valet, abandoned along with the cherry orchard. Angular Rita Litton is strikingly funny as the governess Charlotta, who amuses with her card-tricks and existential soliloquys.
Two excessive performances could be pruned in this "Orchard." Jim Beard is still doing his bombastic Falstaff characterization as the foolish landowner Pischik; and Richard Hart is obnoxious as the impetuous valet Yasha. The Folger has its usual problem with stray guests and servants who attract more attention than necessary.
With its French doors, sliding walls and reversible floral-patterned panels, Ursula Belden's set complements the Folger's dark wood columns, elegantly making the transformations from nursery to garden to drawing room. The impression of faded gentility is enhanced by Stuart Duke's delicate lighting with its subtle dawn to dusk gradations.
THE CHERRY ORCHARD -- At the Shakespeare Theater at the Folger, through March 30.