Tim Leininger, Contributing Critic - Connecticut
I must admit I was dubious about the selection of Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” as the first play of the season for Connecticut Repertory Theatre – running through Oct. 13 at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre at the University of Connecticut.
I was unsure whether or not the new year of students was going to be able to handle a piece of theater that is so richly layered with subtext and balance the humor with the overlying severity of the drama at hand.
Thankfully after looking at the casting my fears were abated as many of the students who impressed me with their improvement over the course of last season have returned, most of them working on their third year MFA acting degree.
Their performances, under the direction of John Miller-Stephany only heighten my expectations for the quality of theater that CT Rep should be producing this school year.
“The Cherry Orchard” is one of Chekhov’s masterpieces and the last play he wrote. Throughout the play, he addresses various social issues of the time.
Prominently featured is the decay of the aristocracy represented by Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya (Caralyn Kozlowski) and her brother Leonid Andreyevich Gayev (Mark Light-Orr), who have become stagnant in their power due to frivolous spending while no longer being educated enough to manage their expansive cherry orchard estate.
The aristocratic demise is juxtaposed with several rising philosophies. There is Yermolay Alexeyevich Lopakhin (Nikolai Fernandez), the descendant of freed slaves of the aristocracy who has become an opportunistic capitalist and offers a way for Lyubov to profit from the financially failing orchard.
The other political viewpoint is Pyotr Sergeyevich Trofimov (Bryan Mittelstadt), a student and former tutor for Lyubov’s deceased son and love interest to her daughter Anya (Abigail Hilditch). Pyotr is a Marxist who is trying to bring awareness to Anya of the coming fall of the aristocracy and the rise of socialism.
Chekhov doesn’t give any clear answer as to who is wrong or right in the debate. Both Fernandez and Mittelstadt do a splendid job of representing both their characters’ strengths and flaws as the aristocratic characters legitimately challenge them.
Though the subject matter is severe, Miller-Stephany plays up the comedy of “The Cherry Orchard.” Chekhov does present a degree of farce and the ensemble does an excellent job of amplifying the absurdity of the oblivious attitudes of the aristocracy to their own budding demise. The family laughs and dances as their own proverbial Rome is burning down around them.
If there is an inherent flaw in “The Cherry Orchard” it is its occasional degree of slapstick, particularly with the character of the clerk, Semyon Panteleyevich Yepikhodov (Rob Barnes). I feel Chekhov could have done without it. This is in no degree a fault of Barnes, who gives Semyon a tenderness and sadness in his unrequited love for housemaid Dunyasha (Erin Cessna) in the midst of his pratfalling.
Zach Broome’s set design is beautifully ornamented from the chandelier to the framing of Toni Sterling’s lighting design and the upstage drop that represents the entryway and windows to the estate. It gives a gorgeous detailed depth.
Plays by Chekhov may appear intimidating -- understandably so considering the subject matter and names that are eternally long and difficult to follow. Thankfully, the program does have a character breakdown that details their relationships and Miller-Stephany has assembled a great cast, who has made a compelling and delightful production of classic 20th-century theater.
The Cherry Orchard
Theater: Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre
Location: 2132 Hillside Road Unit 3104, Storrs
Production: Written by Anton Chekhov; Adapted by Jean-Claude van Itallie; Directed by John Miller-Stephany; Scenic Design by Zach Broome; Lighting Design by Toni Sterling; Costume Design by Xurui Wang; Sound Design by Mackenzie (Mack) Lynn Gauthier; Technical Director: Aubrey Ellis; Text & Diction Coach: Jennifer Scapetis-Tycer; Movement/Intimacy Director: Marie Percy
Show times: Evening: Wednesday and Thursday 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 8 p.m. Matinee: Saturday and Sunday 2 p.m.
Tickets: $10 to $35. Available online at www.crt.uconn.edu, by phone at 860-486-2113, or at the box office