Monday, June 15, 2015

EclecticPond's 'Cherry Orchard' blossoms at the Basile Opera Center

Americans who grew up in the mid- to late 20th century carried a fearful caricature of what Russia had become after social pressures of the 1800s gave birth, midwifed by war, to the global red menace of the Soviet Union.

Much of the discreet charm of Anton Chekhov's emerging bourgeoisie and beleaguered aristocracy foreshadows that cataclysm in muted terms. But it took the tolerant, observant temperament of the man Chekhov to produce a play like "The Cherry Orchard," not a convenient set of circumstances tracing the decline of the old order. Masterpieces aren't generated by either social change or the nature of language, despite what cultural theorists of various stripes tell us.

EclecticPond Theatre Company's production wisely senses how seamlessly Chekhov placed his awareness of a changing world in the personalities of his characters. As seen Sunday evening at the Basile Opera Center, the performance honored the short-lived Russian playwright's compassion and humor and his depiction of the self-serving energy with which people in the real world move and speak.

The focus in this instance is a country estate that has seen better days; its acclaimed cherry orchard has earned mention in an encyclopedia. The return of its weary mistress, temporarily revitalized but trailing family members and personal humiliation from Paris, bursts upon the opening scenes. Michael Hosp has directed his delightfully virtuosic cast with surefooted attention to the characters' jostling egos and their need to find peace and resolution in a world with a bottomless knack for thwarting both. Thirteen at table is conventionally bad luck, but this baker's dozen tosses around the eccentricities and dreams embedded in their roles with zestful control.

Firs the butler (James McNulty) muses on the end of a way of life.
Cain Hopkins' costume designs showed imagination and convincing authenticity. Jeff Martin's scenic design had the right notes of faded elegance, shrouded or wiped away by the doom implied in the last couple of scenes. His lighting, though its second-act fading made the aristocracy's twilight clear, obscured faces a little too much. Music and choreography appropriately fleshed out the culture of the rustic privileged. Dancing that opened Act 2 evoked the setting's accustomed pleasures sweetly and concisely.

Church acoustics presented a hearing challenge now and then, though the actors projected well. The action is smartly laid out across the wide playing area provided by the former sanctuary's chancel, with a kaleidoscopic focus on a wide center doorway, through which we glimpse (and overhear) the boundary between on- and offstage events.

The latter sphere is a specialty of Chekhov's genius, and allows speeches about the outside world to take over from time to time without feeling like padding. The businessman Lopakhin, played by Ryan Ruckman with the crisp focus of an up-and-comer, is naturally counterpointed to the idealistic perpetual student Petya (Benjamin Schuetz). Their mutual hostility was nicely defined Sunday; their awkwardness in romantic matters (paralytic in Lopakhin's case) was fun to watch in sympathy and amusement.

The older characters — topped by James McNulty's doddering portrayal of the estate's symbolically decrepit butler — have that striking blend of inflexibility and nostalgia that sometimes passes for wisdom. But the pose is hard to maintain, especially when the materfamilias Lyubov, plaintive yet somehow magisterial in Christa Shoot Grimmer's portrayal,  has so much to regret. She clings to a fatal generosity even in her impoverished state. It's part of her delusion of noblesse oblige in a world that the children of emancipated serfs like the ambitious Lopakhin will soon come to control, before they in their turn are overtaken by ideologues.

Lyubov's brother Leonid, his vision clouded by an internal verbal fog machine he can't turn off, was invested with imposing bluster and flickering self-insight by Bill Wilkison. Doug Powers as the neighboring landowner Semyonov-Pishchik, his fluttering hands in sync with an imploring stammer, displayed the effects of declining-upper-class begging on a weak personality.

I'm resisting a checklist style assessment of all 13 actors, but I want to mention the first-scene vigor injected by Marcy Thornsberry as the maid Dunyasha into a Chekhovian world that is sometimes superficially described as enervated. There's no lack of effervescence in "The Cherry Orchard," but it passes in and out of the scene like most of the thoughts and emotions experienced by ordinary people. No one expressed the comedy of all that better than Anton Chekhov. This production does that quality full justice.

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