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People's fine ‘Cherry Orchard’

Ellen Wilson Dilks of Delco News Network

Malvern’s People’s Light & Theatre Company continues their 40th Anniversary season with a production of Anton Chekov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ directed by Abigail Adams, the company’s CEO/Artistic Director. Set in the Russian countryside at the turn of the last century, the play (adapted by Emily Mann) runs on PLTC’s Leonard C. Haas Stage through March 8.

‘The Cherry Orchard’ was Chekhov’s last play, opening at the Moscow Art Theatre in January, 1904. The story deals with an aristocratic family losing its estate—and their prized cherry orchard; the property is being auctioned off to pay back a large mortgage. Though a family advisor presents the matriarch with options to keep the land, an inexplicable inertia has set in and they bemoan their situation while everything is sold out from under them. Half-baked attempts at borrowing funds are made, but they do nothing concrete. Losing a family home is tragic, but this family causes their situation through their own stupidity….

Director Adams states in the press release that she has wanted PLTC to produce ‘The Cherry Orchard’ for some time, but was waiting for the right actress to play matriarch Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya. Finally the planets have aligned and Academy Award nominee Mary McDonnell has come to Malvern to perform this pivotal role. Making a third trip to PLTC, David Strathairn (also an Oscar nominee) plays Leonid Andreyevich Gayev, Lyubov’s brother. The two have known each other for some time, working together on several occasions. Their rapport is visible, layering in seamlessly with the long standing connections of People’s Resident Company.

Playing on Tony Straiges’ delicate looking set, Adams and her ensemble bring an airiness to Emily Mann’s adaptation, reminding us that Chekhov intended his plays to be comedies. McDonnell is perfect as the too generous Lyubov, a woman who clearly has no concept of money. She breezes onstage, commanding everyone’s attention, blissfully turning a blind eye to the family’s situation. But she deftly shows us the cracks in this woman’s armor as glimpses of the losses she’s suffered are revealed. Strathairn is equally interesting to watch, playing against type as a weak man unable to gather his wits and save the estate. One gets a sense that life has beat him down, and you can’t help but feel sorry for him.

Pete Pryor takes on the role of antagonist Yermolai Lopakhin, infusing the character with a great deal of smarmy charm. Seemingly a friend, the former serf takes advantage of the situation in the end. As his counterpart, Varya (Lyubov’s adopted daughter), Teri Lamm is a mass of wonderfully interesting contradictions. The only realist in the group, she bemoans their spendthrift ways, yet longs for romance. Andrew Kane makes great use of his lanky form to provide solid slapstick moments—while winning us over with his puppy dog charm—in the role of Semyon Yepikhodov, the family clerk. Ms. McDonnell’s real-life daughter, Olivia Mell, is lovely as Lyubov’s daughter Anya. Ms. Mell shows us a suddenly strong young woman who will embrace the changes in society and bring a new order to the family.

Long-time PLTC company member Peter deLaurier turns in his usual solid performance as neighbor Boris Simeonov-Pishchik, another spendthrift aristocrat unable to see the shift in society. Frequent Guest Artist Luigi Sottile plays Lyubov’s assistant, Yasha, in a spot-on portrait of a slick opportunist. Mary Elizabeth Scallen, another PLTC mainstay, is terrific as the governess, Charlotta; her mastery of sleight of hand is impressive as well. Newcomer Sanjit De Silva gives a wonderful performance as Petya Trofimov, the former tutor of Lyubov’s son—and a budding Bolshevik. Claire Inie-Richards is adorable as the young housemaid Dunyasha, who’s in the throes of her first love (with the oily Yasha). Rounding out the ensemble are three Resident Company members: Mark Lazar lending solid support as the Stationmaster, Stephen Novelli impressing in two very disparate roles (a beggar and the Postmaster) and, finally, Graham Smith making us laugh and breaking our hearts as the ancient family retainer Firs.

Adams clearly loves and understands these people; her direction is sure and lighthearted. The technical aspects of the production are equally strong. Straiges aforementioned set allows the transitions from indoors to outdoors flow smoothly, while Dennis Parichy’s lighting creates beautiful effects that elicit just the right mood. Marla Jurglanis’ costuming is superb, giving the viewer a true sense of time and place. Lovely dances have been created by Samantha Bellomo and J. Jared Janas has done wonderful wigs and hair designs. Melissa Dunphy makes an impressive debut with her soundscape and original compositions for ‘The Cherry Orchard’ even appearing onstage to play violin near the end.

At the time the play was written, Russia was in the midst of tremendous social change. Chekhov brilliantly reflects the rise of a middle class following the abolition of serfdom, juxtaposed with the aristocracy’s desperate attempts to hold onto the status quo, blithely continuing on with an extravagant lifestyle even in the face of changing economics. Emily Mann’s adaptation of ‘The Cherry Orchard’ makes it totally relatable to 21st century audiences who are dealing with the disappearance of that middle class. For an entertaining, yet thought-provoking, piece of theatre that has way more to offer than star power, head to Malvern before this one closes.

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