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Theater Review

Transplanted 'Orchard' blooms

July 03, 2009|David C. Nichols

Anton Chekhov famously described "The Cherry Orchard" as "not a drama but a comedy, in places almost a farce." That is exactly how it blossoms at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum. Chekhov's final masterwork receives a gracefully rewarding production that uses aerated humor and inventive pertinence to illuminate its heartbroken core.

Freely adapted by Heidi Helen Davis, who also directs, beautifully, and Ellen Geer, Chekhov's pre-revolutionary Russian aristocrats wind up outside Charlottesville, Va., circa 1970. Despite fleeting awkward moments, the narrative ploy is impressive, generating unusual accessibility and emotional fluidity.

The ex-serfs of the original are here descendants of slaves. Upper-class heroine Ranevskaya becomes Lillian Randolph Cunningham (Geer, in a luminous turn). Returning home after years abroad, Lillian cannot escape the tragedy that haunts her, even while she avoids facing the imminent auction of her family estate.

As if enabling her denial, Lillian's brother, Gates (William Dennis Hunt, atop his game), elegizes incessantly, without much meaning, as noted by his niece, Anna (a fine-tuned Willow Geer), and everyone else. Conversely, starchy Velina (the superb Tippi Thomas), Lillian's adopted second daughter, quietly deplores Mama's spendthrift impulses and awaits a proposal from well-to-do Lawrence Poole (a towering Steve Matt).

The grandson of owned men who worked this plantation, Lawrence's calmly ruthless capitalism suggests one by-product of the civil rights movement. Another is the smoldering radicalism of eternal student Terrence Moses (Marc Ewing, aptly intense), once the family's tutor, now smitten with Anna and perhaps the clearest-eyed person in the play.

In director Davis' sensitive hands, the incomparable open-air venue suits the approach, as when characters address the title grove while gazing out at us. Val Miller's costume designs precisely blend Southern elegance, European influence and era quirks. Michael Mahlum's lighting plot creates more than one evocative transition.

That goes double for the ensemble, as gifted as any in the Theatricum's storied history. All the aforementioned principals hit the correct notes, from the brimming sorrow beneath Ellen Geer's buoyant entrance to the hair-raising tangle of feelings in Matt's stare at the climax. The triangle of Emma Fassler's love-hungry maid, Tyler Rhoades' clod-hopping clerk and Matt Van Winkle's arch personal assistant melds hilarity to poignancy without overkill. Jerry Hoffman gives his ever-broke neighbor jovial bluster.

Melora Marshall expertly inhales her German-accented governess. And as the faithful servant who embodies a way of life long since passed, J.R. Starr almost steals the show, his final scene infinitely touching.

That heart-stopping moment blurs at Starr's visible exit because of aisle lights, and Lillian's shag wig could stand a rethink. These are quibbles. If not the most audaciously moving "Cherry Orchard" in recent memory -- which would be Bart DeLorenzo's indelible Evidence Room farewell -- this exhilarating account, authentically Chekhovian in spirit, is its own must-see achievement.

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'The Cherry Orchard'

Where: Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga

When: See www.theatricum .com for schedule. Ends Sept. 26.

Price: $20 to $30

Contact: www.theatricum.com

Running time: 2 hours,

10 minutes.

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