“The Cherry Orchard’’ was Anton Chekhov’s final work and thus his final word, written while he battled the tuberculosis that would claim his life just months after the play’s 1904 premiere. It’s a fitting testament: Like him, it is humane, droll, compassionate, and wise.
The doctor-dramatist was the master of small moments, and no slouch when it came to the big, life-changing ones, either. With Chekhov, the everyday can turn epochal in the blink of an eye. Lifelong hopes, dreams, and expectations can be shattered, fulfilled, or deferred in a fleeting instant.
In her exquisite production of “The Cherry Orchard’’ at Actors’ Shakespeare Project, director Melia Bensussen holds those moments up to the light, allowing us to contemplate human nature in all its contradictory essence and to consider the poignant spectacle of human beings striving, in their fitful and clumsy way, after happiness.
Chekhov considered “The Cherry Orchard’’ to be a comedy — he once called it “a four-act vaudeville’’ — and Bensussen is quoted in press materials as saying that she wanted to be faithful to that spirit. She is, but it’s nevertheless the case that this “Cherry Orchard’’ resonates most deeply when an elegiac tone prevails.
ASP is an itinerant company with regard to performance venues, seldom remaining in a spot for more than a couple of productions. For “The Cherry Orchard,’’ the company has found an ideal space: the Founders Hall at the Dane Estate at Pine Manor College. A spacious and stately room, it includes a pair of staircases, leading to a landing, that are tailor-made for the dramatic entrances and exits in Chekhov’s play. The set by Cristina Todesco suggests faded opulence, and lighting designer John Malinowksi adroitly signals changes in mood. (Natural light is also used to good effect.)
Bensussen draws finely detailed performances from her cast of 12, led by Marya Lowry’s touching portrayal of Ranyevskaya, an aristocratic landowner who occupies the emotional center of “The Cherry Orchard.’’
No stranger to personal turmoil, grief, and loss, Ranyevskaya is now confronted with a financial crisis, having returned to her debt-ridden family estate after years abroad. It’s not hard to see how she ran into money trouble: She is generous-spirited to the point of extravagance and more than a little oblivious. Also seemingly in denial is her bloviating brother, Gaev, amusingly portrayed by Richard Snee. As a consequence, Ranyevskaya faces the prospect of losing her home and her beloved cherry orchard.
She is repeatedly urged by the merchant Lopakhin, played by Steven Barkhimer, to rescue herself from the crippling debt by dividing the cherry orchard into lots and then leasing them for summer homes. Ranyevskaya, though, seems more preoccupied with persuading Lopakhin to marry her adopted daughter, Varya, portrayed by Marianna Bassham with a knife edge of desperation. Ranyevskaya’s other daughter, Anya (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan) is attracted to Trofimov (Danny Bryck), a perpetual student.
Lopakhin, a peasant’s son who has amassed wealth through ceaseless and single-minded toil, has a complicated attitude toward Ranyevskaya, and Barkhimer, in one of the finest performances I’ve seen him give, ranges adeptly across a wide spectrum of feelings. The merchant remembers the aristocrat’s kindness when he was a child and she took him by the hand to wash up after his nose was bloodied by a blow from his drunken father. But he also remembers the sting of her offhanded “Don’t cry, little peasant . . .’’
If Ranyevskaya is the embodiment of an aristocracy in twilight, Lopakhin epitomizes the unstoppable enterprise of the profit-minded, bottom-line-driven businessman. But Chekhov’s worldview was always too complex for heroes-vs.-villains scenarios, and Lopakhin is no villain. Barkhimer conveys that fact in a climactic and skillfully acted scene when Lopakhin ranges from exuberance to a darker shade of vindictive triumph to a sudden and profound mourning, and then back to exultation again. A later scene that resolves the semi-courtship between Lopakhin and Varya is equally intricate and masterfully executed by Barkhimer and Bassham as a poignant ballet of indecision and unspoken words that pierces the heart.
Chekhov struggled greatly to finish “The Cherry Orchard.’’ When he sent his wife, the actress Olga Knipper, the script, the writer exclaimed in a letter: “Darling, how hard it was for me to write that play!’’ And how lucky we are that he did.
Correction: Because of an error, an earlier version had the incorrect photo credit and misidentified the character of Varya.