It takes a special leap of imagination -- a leap of faith, even -- to look at a mild-mannered Lutheran pastor and see in him Madame Ranevskaya, the disastrously sentimental widow of Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." Or, by extension, to compare the current senescence of mainline Protestantism to the destabilizing decline of Russia's landed gentry 120 years ago.
But then Tom Jacobson ("Ouroboros") is no ordinary playwright. His ambitious new "The Orange Grove" is inspired by the valedictory tones of Chekhov's final masterpiece and by Jacobson's experiences as a member of Westwood's Lutheran Church of the Master, where his play is being staged.
The result is a vivid, despairing portrait of a community in decline, seamlessly mounted by director Jessica Kubzansky in the sanctuary's often unforgiving space.
Like Chekhov's landowners, the church leaders of "Orange Grove" -- a warm but diffident pastor (Kevin Crowley), a touchy choir director (Tom Beyer), a dithering caretaker (Don Oscar Smith), a selfless volunteer (Bonita Friedericy), a staunch old-timer (Mary Cobb) -- are in denial about the congregation's mounting fiscal crisis and don't want to hear practical proposals from new member Larry (Peter James Smith). After all, the church is a sanctuary not only for them but for a well-meaning if volatile homeless man (Joshua Wolf Coleman) and a part-time secretary (Rebecca Metz), a Jew who nonetheless relishes the church's ad hoc family.
This family is fictive, but its dysfunctions are real. As an unexpectedly circumspect choir diva (Emily Kosloski) observes, "Almost everyone here is single, and that's not a coincidence."
Chekhov devotees will find much to savor in Jacobson's deft character composites and references.
The most Chekhovian thing about "The Orange Grove," though, is the sense of real-time rapport captured so beautifully by Kubzansky and the company. We may leave despairing the future of church-bound faith but not the enduring power of theatrical communion.
'The Orange Grove'
Where: Playwrights' Arena at Lutheran Church of the Master, 10931 Santa Monica Blvd., Westwood
When: 8 p.m. Fridays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Feb. 20
Price: $15 to $20
Contact: (213) 485-1631
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes