‘Cherry Orchard’ bittersweet comedy

By Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll, Cape Cod Times

They’ve been all over the news in the past year or so: People who have spent or lost money freely and injudiciously as if the boom times still existed.

They ignore the mounting pile of debts and aren’t willing to see how family, economic and social circumstances have changed. So they face the loss of their home and, even then, can’t recognize the hard choices they must make, instead holding on for some kind of bail-out.

Twenty-first-century recession, yes, but hello Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya.

In Anton Chekhov’s final play, she’s the owner of “The Cherry Orchard,” come back to her childhood home after a disastrous romance, with family and servants in tow. It’s early 1900s Russia and class rules are changing rapidly. The expansive house and famous (though un-money-producing) orchard is about to be auctioned off for debts and she is thoroughly incapable of facing the present, much less the future.

Sister Danielle Dwyer, who also adeptly directs, plays Ranevskaya with a mix of desperation and tired coquettishness, trying to retain an air of entitlement and good memories while only occasionally giving in to unsettling truths. Her deep sense of denial exasperates adopted daughter Varya, simmeringly played as practical and plain-spoken by Rachel McKendree, who has had to try to keep the estate afloat. Varya keeps being presumably paired off with clever, but emotionally repressed merchant Yermolay Alexeyevich Lopakhin (Chris Kanaga), whose family has risen from servitude and who tries, with little success, to get Ranevskaya’s family to change their myopic ways.

Sounds bleak, doesn’t it? While there are certainly tragic events, Elements Theatre Company has worked carefully to honor Chekhov’s intention that this be a comedy as the group celebrates the 150th anniversary of his birth. Chief among the comic relief is the slow-moving, hard-of-hearing valet Firs (Luke Norman); the condescending, kooky governess Charlotta Ivanovna (Kate Shannon); and Ranevskaya’s brother Leonid Andreyevich Gayev (Brad Lussier). Ellen Ortolani’s sunny Anya, Ranevskaya’s daughter, adds a joyful and optimistic air to any scene she’s in, and one knows that there is the most hope for her future happiness.

While the acting level varies among the cast — the servants generally seem less natural and comfortable in their portrayals than the family members — the show is impeccably produced on several levels.

A variety of Russian music plays throughout, and the action takes place on one of the widest stages on Cape Cod (in Paraclete House on Rock Harbor), a size that suits the story well. The design by Amy Mitchell and Hans Spatzeck-Olsen creates a vast nursery, a vast lawn and a vast drawing room. The characters are dwarfed by these surroundings and it’s clear the home is too large to be practical in these changing times.

The period costumes, which extend to ushers, are lovely and Dwyer’s choice to add dancers, particularly ones playing cherry trees in a prologue and epilogue, add a key sense of the beauty being lost with this need to sell. Only some sound cues, particularly of men chopping trees as the family departs, prove ineffective in the show design.

Dwyer has said Elements chose Chekhov to stretch the acting experience and repertoire of the company. Except for some short comedies, Chekhov hasn’t been produced much on Cape Cod in recent years and this “Cherry Orchard” is a top opportunity for local audiences to stretch, too, and experience classic Russian theater done well.