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ACT's Cherry Orchard serves up a feast of characters and images; An Inspector Calls is merely a visual feast

Wednesday, Apr 17 1996
Go ahead, stroll casually into the Geary Theater, where American Conservatory Theater's rewarding production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (directed by Barbara Damashek) has just opened, and try remaining indifferent to set designer Kate Edmunds' bold and provocative vision of the nursery of a Russian estate in which the play begins. If you're anything like me -- or the hapless characters who soon take the stage -- you'll feel dwarfed, thrilled, and quite happily cowed by the sight in front of you: At stage right stands an enormous, oversize rocking horse; at stage left, a bookcase looms to a terrifying height. It's a mythic environment calculated to dominate -- to turn people into toys and grown-ups into children -- and it sets the perfect tone for this drama of adults who are tragically unable to cope with a changing world.

No one fits in this nursery, whose only other significant furnishing is a tiny, child-size desk. And none of the people whose play this is fits the world so vividly represented on the Geary stage. Either they're hopelessly tied to the supposed glories of the past, when the family possessed apparently limitless wealth, or they're awkward pragmatists of a present that seems much like our own, where the only real concern is the bottom line.

Director Damashek increases our sense of disorientation by replacing the play's traditional beginning -- a straightforward exposition of the family's imminent arrival -- with a dream sequence: Lopakhin (Jack Wetherall) sleeps slumped against a wall and conjures a child (presumably the estate owner's young son, who drowned six years previously) riding atop the gigantic horse. The boy (played alternately by David Jacobs and Steven Philip Nordberg) then clambers down, runs about the nursery, and switches on a set of electric trains before scampering out. The model train's whistle is replaced by a louder one, recognizably real, and Dunyasha the maid (Adria Woomer-Stewart) enters and wakes Lopakhin. We are on notice that real life will be mingled with dreams and shaded by nostalgic fantasy.

As one of the fathers of modern drama, Chekhov is duly acknowledged for his genius in representational drama: for plucking small kernels of whimsical hope and abject despair from everyday speech (beautifully contemporized in Paul Schmidt's trim new translation), and for placing the concerns of real people from all levels of society at center stage. But, as demonstrated brilliantly by ACT's creative production team (along with Edmunds' set is Peter Maradudin's lighting, Beaver Bauer's costumes, and Stephen LeGrand's sound, with additional music by Conrad Susa), real life does not have to mean kitchen sink. It does not have to be drab, and it can glory in the magical properties of the stage. Chekhov, after all, was going for emotional reality, which is always a heightened and distorted version of the flat, everyday world.

The slatted background shows an orchard in full flower: It's May in the Russian countryside, and Liubov Ranyevskaya (Gordana Rashovich) is returning after five disastrous years in Paris. The homecoming is bittersweet as the estate, in the family for generations, is in imminent danger of being sold to pay off extensive debts. This is an aristocratic clan whose values prohibit such vulgarities as work, and whose fortune has been consumed by constant waste and squandering. As the ancient butler Firs (Gerald Hiken) notes sadly, "no one remembers" how to turn the orchard's yield, which once sustained the estate all year long, into profit. Liubov herself is incapable of saving money, and, along with her brother, Leonid Gayev (Ken Ruta), and the other members of her extended family -- her daughter, Anya (Tina Jones), and adopted daughter, Varya (Michelle Morain) -- ignores Lopakhin's warnings and suggestions.

A prosperous businessman whose father and grandfather once toiled as serfs on the estate, Lopakhin is this Cherry Orchard's most deeply romantic character. He wants to save the family and has come up with a scheme whereby Liubov can restore the ancestral wealth by subdividing the property and putting it up for sale. Times are changing, he tells her, and she and her brother must change with them. Of course Liubov and Leonid simply dance, play, and reminisce the short Russian summer away until in the end, the land is lost and the cherry orchard is cut down.

Meanwhile Damashek and her able ensemble serve up a feast of characters, images, and ideas. As Liubov, Rashovich is liquid in her inability to hold onto money, languorous in her attempts to influence the course of events. She is like a character caught in a perpetual dream who can neither run nor take any action to prevent the oncoming disaster.

Ruta is poignant, charming, and winsome as the wastrel brother Leonid, a poet at heart whose musings make no sense to his listeners, and whose efforts to memorialize significant events are continually shushed.

I found Wetherall's drab and colorless Lopakhin troublesome at first, but a performance that seemed initially lackluster took on subtle nuances as the evening progressed and ultimately made excellent sense dramatically. This is a man who is, after all, virtually invisible to the people he idolizes. Liubov refuses to entertain his solution -- "Cut down the orchard? Oh, my dear man, you don't understand" -- and only seems to see him when she wants to push him into marriage with Varya.

As the adopted (and therefore second-class) daughter Varya, Morain manages to balance borderline hysteria with deep dignity. Her longing for love and a home that is truly her own is as basic to her as breath. We know, as she seems to, that Lopakhin will not marry her, but we honor her grace in making her heart available.

Other standouts include the endlessly fresh and inventive Dan Hiatt as the bumbling accountant Semyon Yepikhodov; Will Marchetti in a cameo as a homeless man; Gerald Hiken as the mournfully comic Firs; and the irrepressibly entertaining Sharon Lockwood as the governess Carlotta.

Included in the press materials for The Cherry Orchard is this quote attributed to Chekhov: "In real life, people don't spend every minute shooting each other, hanging themselves, or making declarations of love. They don't dedicate their time to saying intelligent things. They spend much more of it eating, drinking, flirting, and saying foolish things -- and that is what should happen on the stage."

He must have been thinking of plays like An Inspector Calls, now lodged at the Golden Gate Theater. This is the award-winning Royal National Theatre production (directed by Stephen Daldry) of J.B. Priestley's 1945 pseudo-Victorian thriller. If you can wrap your mind around that convoluted lineage, and if you have a fondness for spectacular stage effects (à la cats riding to heaven on oversize tires), you might just enjoy the show.

It's a blustery moral melodrama that seems continually poised to take an ironic turn and deliver a punch line in the tradition of O. Henry, the bard of the short story. Unfortunately, however, the punch line is more of a light tap, and Inspector merely stays blustery all the way through.

A long introductory scene shows a dollhouselike Victorian mansion-on-stilts in a war-ruined town in England (identifiable by the wrecked red telephone booth off to stage right). Urchinlike children play in the dreary rain and kick an old radio into operation, presumably thus getting the story under way. Is it a radio drama? A soap opera? A morality play? All that and more, the producers would have us believe. In actuality it's all that and less.

A dinner party that is out of our view but occasionally audible is in progress in the house. (Yes, the Ian MacNeil-designed scenery and lighting by Rick Fisher are fabulous.) It's an engagement celebrating the merger of crass wealth with old landed gentry. Just as the Birling family is about to explode from happiness that their horsy daughter Sheila (Jane Fleiss) is to marry the pompous Gerald Croft (David Andrew MacDonald), Inspector Goole (Sam Tsoutsouvas) -- named without irony, apparently -- arrives. A girl has died, he tells them in dolorous tones. He then proceeds to connect each of them to the poor girl's ruin, trying with all his might to make them feel wretchedly guilty.

A mysterious crowd dressed for the 1940s bears silent witness. Some spectacular things happen to the house. But when the smoke clears, you may feel as I did: In spite of all the shouting, emoting, and fireworks, Chekhov gets the last word here.

The Cherry Orchard runs through June 7 at the Geary Theater in S.F.; call 749-2228. An Inspector Calls runs through May 5 at the Golden Gate Theater in S.F.; call 776-1999.

About The Author

Mari Coates


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