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Giving them the business: Ritchie Coster in The Cherry Orchard.

As Time Goes By
By Ralph Hammann

The Cherry Orchard
By Anton Chekhov, directed by Michael Greif
Williamstown 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 skill.

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 by it.

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