them the business: Ritchie Coster in The Cherry Orchard.
Time Goes By
By Anton Chekhov, directed by Michael Greif
Theatre Festival, through Aug. 22
One of the loveliest sights in Williamstown is about to be
demolished, when the portico and columns of the Williamstown
Theater Festival’s Adams Memorial Theatre will fall as the
structure is subsumed into a new behemoth of a performing
arts center. Thus, it is fitting that The Cherry Orchard,
which ruefully looks at the passing of a social order and
tradition, should be the last play performed at the AMT. Chekhov
was writing about Russian history as it unfolded, and his
orchard is a symbol of the landed gentry, a refined class
valuing culture, the arts, tradition and leisure.
The action of the play seems as simple as the character’s
names are complex. The Gáyev estate, which belongs to Liubóv
and Leoníd (sister and brother), is about to be put to auction
as the cash-poor owners can no longer pay their taxes, let
alone the servants. They are urged by Lopákhin, a wealthy
businessman, to cut down their cherry orchard and subdivide
their land so they can sell it at great profit before it goes
to auction. Because they are romantics and can’t part with
the past (or destroy beauty), they idle away precious time
with talk and music as they try to maintain the status quo
against the inevitable encroachment of harsh reality. They
lose virtually everything.
As with so much of Chekhov the surface is deceptive; everything
is behavioral and depends on discovering the subtext. It requires
a great cast and masterful director: Michael Greif is that
man. His vision is brilliant, and he has applied it with rigorous
During much of the first act, the twittering of birds is boldly
used to parallel and underscore the foolish, inconsequential
chirping of maids and leisured twits. Lovely, light and harmless.
When something of more consequence is said, the birds abate.
The effect also contributes to the environment where manicured
nature dominates upstage. Greif rolls out a lush row of trees
in blossom that effectively stand in for the entire orchard.
It is done unsentimentally with utter simplicity, and the
effect is completely moving as designed by Allen Moyer.
In another clever manipulation of the material, Greif and
Moyer relocate the second act from an abandoned chapel to
the encroaching railroad tracks that dramatically traverse
the stage. The sense is of waiting, of time momentarily forestalled.
And in the dramatic shift to the final act, the true villain
of the piece, Time, makes its heightened entrance introduced
by the loud gears of some great clock. This eventually gives
way to clockwork chopping offstage when time finally overtakes
the Gáyevs and their beloved orchard.
In choosing Linda Emond, an actress of subtle means, to play
Liubóv, Greif ensures that the potentially florid role will
not be overdone. Here we have an elegant Liubóv, but not one
who controls the stage whenever she enters. This is, after
all, a play in which control is being lost. And in Reed Birney’s
sadly comic Leoníd, there is a delightful fool who can harm
no one save himself, a character of such featherheaded lightness
that we want to return the poor nestling to safety.
As the adopted daughter, Michelle Williams proves her stage
legs as she conveys the uncomfortable stiffness that Várya’s
nervousness and propriety force on her. In contrast, Jessica
Chastain brings a radiance to Ánya that carries its own sting
of sorrow when one realizes that she will waste away in the
sterile arms of Pétya, who doesn’t believe in love.
Greif’s masterstroke was to cast an extraordinary actor as
Lopákhin and to place greater emphasis on the businessman.
Revelatory in the role, Ritchie Coster is fascinating as he
peels away its complex layers. Seeming as uncomfortable in
his own skin as he is in the changing social status, Coster
reveals a Lopákhin who has a love/hate relationship with Gáyevs
and a painful self-division. He juggles giddy awe, self-loathing,
triumphal revenge and self-doubt, and the conflict manifests
itself in his struggles to find his footing and to formulate
words to express himself.
Greif has created a defining production of The Cherry Orchard.
At any rate, its the first time I’ve been genuinely moved