Anton Chekhov knew you didn't always have to do something to do something, and based on the Round House Theatre's just-opened production of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" -- director Nick Olcott clearly understands what that means. The show has such a nuanced feel for the play's period, late-19th-century Russia, that you might find yourself wondering whether Olcott somehow went back in time and spent a couple evenings with the playwright and his pals.
Actually, the mundane truth is impressive enough. Olcott knows how to deal with the greatest challenge posed by this difficult masterpiece: Since its premiere nearly a century ago in Moscow, "The Cherry Orchard" has often mystified audiences with its seemingly static portrait of members of a landed gentry family doing nothing as they watch a cold new world close in on them. Too often productions have oversimplified Lyubov Ranevskaya and her brother Leonid as symbols of some inner blight because of their "inability" to save from the chop their beloved cherry orchard and the gloriously privileged past it represents.
But in "The Cherry Orchard," doing nothing can be an active move toward self-fulfillment. In Olcott's extraordinarily sensitive and sensible staging, Lyubov and Leonid willingly go headlong to an unthinkable fate because avoiding it would involve something even more unthinkable: denying who they are. Yes, they're self-absorbed and something inside is missing, but by emphasizing their inaction as a conscious choice, Olcott elicits from them and the play a rare, awesome integrity -- the very kind, in fact, that Chekhov was writing about.
Deep into the evening, Lyubov (Kathryn Kelley) piercingly delivers what could be the production's touchstone line. Thus far, we've watched as she and her brother have seemed almost oblivious to the fact that they're nearly broke and have run up huge back taxes on their country estate while they lived and traveled in Europe. They've come back for one last visit to their childhood home, reveling in golden memories, disdainfully laughing at the suggestion that they turn the orchard into rental cottages and use the income to pay off their debts. When it's clear she will otherwise be forced to sell the land to pay her bills, Lyubov, realizing she loses either way, lashes out: "Without my orchard my life is nothing!"
It's a defiant -- and defining -- moment, implying Lyubov's refusal to accommodate a present she feels has no soul, even if it means obliterating part of her past. She remains true to herself, and in Kelley's complex, unsentimental performance, it's a self that isn't always likable, but it earns your respect.
Olcott has shaped all the other major performances accordingly. As Leonid, Rick Foucheux looks over the house as if it were a world unto itself, and he seems to come most alive -- gesticulating, blathering -- when seeing, say, an old piece of furniture that evokes a particular memory. The present seems to mean little to him if it's cut off from the past. As Firs, the couple's lifelong servant, Emery Battis is proudly fastidious about his charges, even when it's not clear that they can afford to keep him on.
As Lopakhin, a former peasant who used to work for the family but is now among the nouveau riche of the rising merchant class, Marty Lodge is, at first glance, uneasy with his new status. He takes comfort in being the voice of reason -- the voice of the present -- advising Lyubov and Leonid to build the rental cottages. But when they refuse, he too remains what he has always been -- he's an angry serf who now has the means to afford revenge, and he takes it.
Other distinctly etched performances come from David Fendig as a footman way above his station; Sarah Marshall as an eccentric governess with a flair for card tricks; Bill Largess as a neighboring landowner always looking for a handout; Crystal Fox as Lyubov's adopted daughter, who's waiting for a marriage proposal, and Karl Miller as a young and annoyingly idealistic revolutionary.
A network of tilting and rotting beams, archways and floors, Tony Cisek's set beautifully evokes the outlines of a once-grand house in decline. Nancy Schertler has lighted it with lusciously shifting hues and shades that enhance the atmosphere of decay. Rosemary Pardee's gorgeously detailed period costumes powerfully underscore Olcott's view of the play and its people, particularly at the end. The family's entourage is leaving, more or less with only their fabulous clothing from a passing era. It is all they have. It is who they are.
The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Nick Olcott. Sound by Tony Angelini. With Megan Anderson, Susan Lynskey, Peter J. Mendez, Tony Tsendeas and Grady Weatherford. Approximately 2 1/2 hours. Through Dec. 1 at Round House Theatre. Call 240-644-1100.