U-M’s take on Anton Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard" balances an awkward blend of comedy and tragedy


Overheard shot of the stage with the cast of The Cherry Orchard

Photo by Erin Kirkland/Michigan Photography.

Is it a tragedy or a comedy?

Anton Chekhov, master short story writer and playwright, believed he had written The Cherry Orchard as a comedy, taking a jab at a rapidly fading way of life in rural Russia. When director Constantin Stanislavski directed the play for the Moscow Art Theatre in 1904, he directed a tragedy about a social order soon to be eclipsed by a very different social order.

The University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre and Drama balances the two points of view with mixed results.

In his program notes director Daniel Cantor acknowledges the shifting tone that leaves room for very different points of view.

Cantor writes, “What’s fascinating to me about The Cherry Orchard is that it contains intense contradictions: contradictions in style, theme, and action, and highly contradictory characters. It fully occupies a tragicomic perspective that is always moving, shifting, turning on a dime—whipping from the profound to the farcical, the spiritual to the absurd. And sometimes both at once.”

Luibov Ranyevska returns from five years in Paris to her beloved home and beautiful cherry orchard. She has come to sell off her property to pay off her debts. But she is reluctant to sell and once at home she tries to avoid that conversation and talk of other things, some happy, some sad. 

She is accompanied back to Russia by her 17-year-old daughter, Anya, an optimist. She is greeted by her 24-year-old adopted daughter, Varya, who has taken charge of the estate in her mother’s absence. 

Lopakhin, a rich businessman, is a friend of the family and the son of a peasant, the grandson of a serf. He wants Luibov to consider a proposal to help her out of her economic troubles by selling the property to him. He plans to cut down the cherry orchard and the stately home to create a resort of cabins along the river.

As Cantor notes, the play swings from one point of view to another, from comedy to tragic memories and emotional breakdowns. It also weighs conflicting views on what it means to be modern, and what it means to move forward if you give up what you love.

An actor looking angry and shouting in The Cherry Orchard

Photo by Erin Kirkland/Michigan Photography.

For the U-M theater department, The Cherry Orchard is a challenge. It provides room for farcical comedy, serious debate, emotional highs, and a large cast. The play runs a bit long, the comedy works sometimes but at other times seems forced. That sudden switch from one emotion to another isn’t always as smooth as it could be. But, then again, Chekhov wrote a play that could be approached in very different ways.

Kaylin Gines presents a fragile, touchy, lost portrayal of Madame Ranyevska. She is a demanding presence, pivoting from dire memories of a son who drowned, to a rocky relationship in Paris, to the threat to her “beloved” cherry orchard, which she will not confront. Gines sharp voice effectively captures her distress and her flighty inability to deal with her emotions. 

Lenin Izquierdo plays Lopakhin, a character sometimes seen as the villain and at other times the hero of a new rising class. Izquierdo gives an excellent performance of a good man, but also a man with deep resentments of the generations of his ancestors who were ruled by the careless aristocrats. 

Cast members looking menacing and scary behind a screen in The Cherry Orchard

Photo by Erin Kirkland/Michigan Photography.

Another point of view is offered by Petya Trofimov, a perpetual graduate student and leftist activist. Roham Amar Maletira is every bit the romantic revolutionary as Trofimov. He is a nervous suitor to Anya (Elle Saliba), but as a Marxist, he makes a strong case for social action in a conversation with Lopakhin. The two offer divergent views on the future of Russia, a future that would begin just a year after the premiere of the play and end in the revolution of 1917.

Kaila Pelton-Flavin plays Varya, the level-headed daughter. Her mother has assumed that Varya has been wooed by Lopakhin, but Varya knows that the romance will never be and thinks she, as Lopakhin quotes from Hamlet, “should get to a convent.” Peloton-Flavin gives the character a solid demeanor that fits a young woman who has held her adoptive family together.

Other standouts are CC Meade as the romance-hungry maid Dunyasha; Lewis C. Jackson III as Pischik, an aristocrat down on his luck and always looking for an angle; Jalen Steudle as Gayev, Luibov’s awkward and goofy brother; Drake Fengye Zhao as Carlotta, the governess whose real talent lies in card games, sleight of hand and circus acts, and, Sam Hopkins as Firs, the all too loyal 87-year-old butler who thinks the serfs should have stayed in their place.

Cantor adds some imagery that suggests the class conflicts that will come. In the background, the poor are just outside. In the play, Chekhov introduces a homeless man as a reminder that there were many who were hungry, homeless, and without hope, even as the aristocrats and a rising middle class dithered away.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

The University of Michigan's production of "The Cherry Orchard" continues at 8 pm on April 5-6, 12-13; at 7:30 pm on April 11; and at 2 pm on April 7 and 14 at the Arthur Miller Theatre. For tickets, visit tickets.smtd.umich.edu, call 734-764-2538, or go to the League Ticket Center, 10 am to 5 pm, Monday-Friday.