Burning Coal Theatre Adds a Touch of Modernity to a Chekhov Classic

Burning Coal’s production of Anton Chekhov’s 1904 play, The Cherry Orchard, as adapted and directed by Randolph Curtis Rand, begins with the stage manager (Adam Budlong) reading the stage directions. He is seated at one end of a long banquet table, with a dozen wooden chairs in front of it, placed along the far wall, and the sound designer (Valentina Cordoba) is at the other end. A wooden gate structure is suspended from the ceiling. Two people enter; the man sits in one of the chairs while the woman removes the white coverings from furniture revealing two undersized chairs and a table, remnants of a nursery. A conversation begins, and it is clear that others are expected to arrive soon.

The Ranevsky family has reunited at the family home since they’ve received word that their estate, including a beloved cherry orchard, is about to be auctioned because of debt. The matriarch, Love Ranevsky, (an impressive Lynda Clark) sweeps in with an entourage that includes her daughter, greeting her brother, other members of her household, and the friends that have come to see her. She has been in Paris for the past five years, and her other daughter has been in charge of the day-to-day activities. The stage is suddenly full of people who all know one another, and has the air of a fateful reunion – less voluntary, more mandatory.

And it is up to Yarmolai Lopakhin, a successful businessman and son of a former servant, to inform the Ranevsky family of their options: let the estate go to auction or lease out parcels for vacation homes. Unfortunately, either choice involves the demise of the cherry orchard, and that is the major objection of both siblings. For them, nostalgic memories of their childhood are tied to this estate, so they turn away from making a decision, refusing to fully acknowledge that the way of life they’ve known has slipped away. In effect, the play becomes a commentary on social change.

Chekhov viewed his play as a comedy, and most modern renditions call it a tragicomedy, a term not in use in the early part of the 20th century. Juan Isler, as Lopakhin, expressively delivers some of the most humorous moments of the drama. Other characters break the fourth wall and offer asides to the audience, often accenting something not quite believable, and bringing a modern touch to this production. And while challenging to keep track of the relationships among the characters, all of the performances are solid expressions of each character’s individuality. 

Mark Filiaci imbues the brother of Love Ranevsky, Leonid Gayev, with convincing weariness laced with moments of striking physical comedy that accent his use of alcohol. Gene Cordon also has some fine comic moments as does John Jimerson, both of whom have tenuous connections to the Ravensky family. 

The two Ranevsky daughters are a study in opposites. Anya (Elise Kimple) is modern, traveling and studying, developing an adolescent crush on the brash, idealistic and revolutionary-minded student played with charming earnestness by Matthew Hager. Maxine Eloi’s Varya, an adopted daughter (possibly of some former household help), is devoted to both religion and care of the estate. Left in charge without financial resources, she is the put-upon servant, her desires and needs neglected. Abigail Colborn offers a light-hearted performance as the trick-wielding Charlotta, a companion of Anya, while Jordan Lichtenheld leans heavily into the comical aspects of Dunyasha, the family’s maid.

Overall, though this production seemed to want to add a dash of modernity to Chekhov’s classic,  with its use of Southern accents and in noticeably casting the servant roles with people of color, it stays grounded firmly in early twentieth-century Russia. Race issues and class conflict hint at the inherent tension between wealthy landowning families and their black servants, but ultimately are glossed over leaving the audience to witness the passing of time, and of an era, welcomed by some and lamented by others.

The Burning Coal Theatre production of The Cherry Orchard runs through April 23. For more information visit https://burningcoal.org/.

Editor’s Note: For the purposes of full disclosure, Juan Isler, who is featured in this production, is on the Board of Directors of Beltline to Broadway.

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