Review: THE CHERRY ORCHARD at Goodman Theatre

Review: THE CHERRY ORCHARD at Goodman Theatre

It’s only fitting that for his swan song at Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Robert Falls has adapted and directed Anton Chekhov’s THE CHERRY ORCHARD, a play that’s also very much a swan song. With this staging, Falls has completed the cycle of directing all four of Chekov’s full-length plays for the Goodman stage. Fall’s take on THE CHERRY ORCHARD is surprisingly comedic and strips the play of the more obscure Russian references (though it’s still a period piece), which also demonstrates an artful understanding of the text and how 2023 audiences are best primed to receive it. THE CHERRY ORCHARD’s central character, estate owner Lyubov Ranevskaya, desperately clings to her glamorized version of the past even as the world around her moves inexorably forward. It’s a farewell, indeed, and a lesson in learning when to hold on and when to let go. 

Falls has assembled a veritable “who’s who” of Chicago actors for this production. It’s not only a tautly adapted and directed play, but a masterclass in acting. Kate Fry is magnificent as the privileged but destitute Ranevskaya, who feels altogether entitled to maintain possession of her family’s estate and the accompanying cherry orchard, though she’s not worked a day in her life. It’s a testament to Fry’s acting skills that she makes Ranevskaya simultaneously compelling and infuriating; Fry has charming, dramatic line deliveries, and her character is utterly lost in her own limited worldview. Kareem Bandealy is a terrific foil as Yermolai Lopakhin, a pragmatic businessman who now has the means to purchase Ranevskaya’s estate out from under her. Bandealy has a grounded and calming presence—until he unleashes in a brilliant turn in a drunken scene. He embodies the full range of human emotion in his performance. Together, Fry and Bandealy provide the “yin” and “yang” of this CHERRY ORCHARD. Likewise, Ranevskaya’s bright-eyed seventeen-year-old daughter Anya (Raven Whitley) and her no-nonsense adopted eldest daughter Varya (Alejandra Escalanate) are a study in contrasts. Whitley plays Anya as every bit the naive ingénue, while Escalanate delivers each line straight-forward and with a hint of disdain. While Ranevskaya also clings to her vision of things as they were, her brother Leonid Gayev (a warm turn from Christopher Donahue) tries to balance nostalgia with a sense of hope about the future. 

I’ve occasionally thought of Chekhov as rather plodding and depressing, but Falls’ adaptation moves swiftly for this kind of theater. It’s also undeniably comedic at parts. Janet Ulrich Brooks is a stand-out as the governess Charlotta, who quite literally has tricks up her sleeve. Brooks has a sense of playfulness throughout the play, and she makes brilliant work of the simple act of pulling a cucumber out of her pocket and taking bites in one scene. Will Allan also has excellent comedic instincts as the foolish Yepikhodov, the family’s bookkeeper with clumsy tendencies and eyes for the housemaid Dunyasha (Amanda Drinkall, delightfully exasperated). Fran Guinan is a true tragicomic figure as Firs, the attentive but ignored housekeeper. Guinan has many funny one-liners early on, but his final moments on stage alone are heart wrenching. 

Falls works with many of his frequent artistic collaborators for the production design. Todd Rosenthal’s set design has some classic surprises and reveals that never fail to delight. Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes reflect the period and also add some whimsical touches that define character (see: Brooks’s bright yellow harem-style pants in one scene as an example). Richard Woodbury’s sound and music suit the atmosphere well, and the music from the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band was a nice addition. 

THE CHERRY ORCHARD makes clear that saying goodbye is never easy, even when it becomes necessary (and in typical Chekhovian fashion, the scene in which Ranevskaya must say goodbye to her estate once and for all is, indeed, too long). It’s a natural send-off for Falls. I’ve admittedly had mixed feelings about some past Chekhov productions I’ve seen over the years, but this staging demonstrates how well THE CHERRY ORCHARD works when it has preciseness of vision. While I still wouldn’t label the play a comedy, the comedic moments stand out. It’s overall a smart character study and acting vehicle that displays how all the inhabitants of Ranevskaya’s estate respond well or poorly (in most cases) to the changing world around them. 

THE CHERRY ORCHARD plays the Albert Theatre at Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, through April 30. Tickets are $25-$80. 


Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

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