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STAGE REVIEW : La Jolla Offers an ‘Orchard’ Worthy of the Master

TIMES THEATER WRITER

It’s really very simple.

The notion that a production need do no more (and no less) than be faithful to a great play tends to be viewed either as self-evident or merely simplistic and gets regularly ignored. But the greatest wisdom quite often lies in the most obvious course. If anyone wanted proof, they need look no further than the La Jolla Playhouse’s new production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.”

Two things predominate in the staging that opened Sunday at the Mandell Weiss Theatre: judgment and talent. One thing is missing: gimmicks. From Elisaveta Lavrova’s silken translation of the text, to director Tom Moore’s passionate take on the play and the enchanted trees and tracery of Heidi Landesman’s set, this inaugural production of La Jolla’s 1990 season is a feast for the heart--measured, graceful, eloquent.

The play is set in its own time and place: turn of the century Russia, where serfdom was a thing of the past and revolution still a thing of the future. On the Ranevsky estate, past and future meet in an uneasy present. The aristocracy is superannuated and the sons of serfs are feeling their new muscle. Time and money are running out. But still the balalaikas play, and even though there are no rubles with which to face the music, no one wants to acknowledge the coming of the ax.

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Chekhov’s symbolism is broader here, in his last play, than in any other. The magnificent cherry orchard, renowned for its vastness, surrounds the house like a fortress. It is the silent watchman in whose fall dynasties will collapse.

Within the house, Chekhov has woven his usual intricate tapestry of interrelated lives--the old guard and the new. Mistress of the mansion, the giddy Ranevskaya (Lynn Redgrave), is newly returned from Paris where she has squandered love and money. Like her effete and ineffectual brother Gaev (Bill Ball), she can’t cope with impending financial disaster.

Ineptitude and paralysis will lose them the estate. An elaborate retinue of offspring, tutors, servants, friends and other neighbors takes part in this final, mirthless and tragically comical dance of death. In the end, when the shrewd and stolid Lopakhin (Mark Harelik) acquires the orchard at auction, we watch the new order triumph inexorably over the old as this former serf, drunk on new-found wealth and sudden power, brings down the emblematic trees.

Whatever suspense was intended in watching the mighty fall has long given way to marveling at how skillfully Chekhov has etched these interconnecting lives. Nowhere is good acting more crucial than on this kind of chessboard where portraiture is everything.

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Casting is exemplary in this “Orchard.” Aside from the actors already mentioned (who deliver burnished and distinctive characterizations), it is the blending of strongly individual performances at the heart of a beautifully orchestrated ensemble that places this production near the top of a handful of memorable American stagings of Chekhov--including the Old Globe’s “Uncle Vanya” earlier this year. (How lucky can San Diego get?)

Ball, who is the former artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre and has been away from the stage for 28 years, delivers a pathetically weak, tenderly modulated Gaev. Redgrave’s tremulous Ranevskaya makes it easy to see why no one resists her--and Molly Hagan is a daughter worthy of this mother as the beautiful Anya, richly detailing a role too often left unexplored.

Mia Dillon’s unhappy Varya, Peter Frechette’s “moth-eaten” tutor, Robert Cornthwaite’s graceful Firs, Cheryl Giannini’s sturdy and amusing Charlotta, William Youmans’ haplessly comical Yepikhodov and Tracey Leigh’s Dunyasha all stand out. Harelik’s final intoxicated rantings over his purchase of the estate is as harrowing as it is impotent and explosive.

Ultimately, it is director Moore who deserves a large portion of the credit for having chosen so well. There is not a wrong move in this “Orchard,” from Robert Blackman’s lavish costumes, to Peter Maradudin’s mood-setting lights, John McKinney’s and Mel Marvin’s original music and Jean Isaacs’ dances. It’s one not to miss.

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At the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m., until June 17. $20-$26; (619) 534-3960.


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