Cherry Orchard

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday February 26, 2009

Lovey (Avery) and brother Gaev (Tom Hickey) embrace.
Lovey (Avery) and brother Gaev (Tom Hickey) embrace.  (Source:Chris Ocken)

Anton Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard" saw its original stage debut with the Moscow Art Theatre in 1904, over a century and dozens of translations ago, but the work continues to perplex audiences and theatre companies alike. Strawdog Theatre Company's current offering of Curt Columbus' adaptation of Chekhov's final work is no exception, though any amount of confusion gives way quickly to entertainment and a whole lot of laughter in the company's surprisingly cheeky rendition of the classic.

And, it would seem, that was how Chekhov would have liked it. According to most sources, the playwright originally balked at the on-stage fruition of his semi-autobiographical play, directed by Constantin Stanislavski. Chekhov has intended the story of Ranevskaya and family's loss of their estate as a dark comedy of sorts, while the director wrapped the production up in the "dark" side of the equation by framing the story as a tragedy. In the years that have passed, productions have gone any number of directions on the issue of comedy vs. tragedy, with varying degrees of success.

Strawdog's offering, directed by Kimberly Senior, certainly qualifies as uniquely successful, depicting the aristocratic Gayev's impromptu family reunion over difficult circumstances - the impending foreclosure of the orchard estate which they had so beloved during their childhood. At the time of the play, Russia's social order was in upheaval, as the aristocracy felt the continued effects of the abolition of serfdom in 1861, and the Gayev family is no exception.

The care-free, spend-happy attitude is embodied by Lovey, the matriarch (played by Jennifer Avery) who maintains a smile despite the economic and personal hardships she faces, including the recent loss of her son. Her performance is breathtaking and surely a stand-out, representing the challenges of coming face to face with change and not knowing where to turn - suddenly not understanding the world around oneself.

And then there is the character of Trofimov, the eternal student, played by Rob Fagin. Trofimov represents the new order - of students, workers and philosophers who stand against the status quo of the aristocracy. He playfully woos Lovey's 17-year-old daughter Anya (played by Rebecca Butler) and provides a refreshingly naive and optimistic presence in the production.

The actors' performances are enhanced by a set and lighting design that cleverly integrates the challenges presented by the company's very intimate space - one large pillar, in particular, that stands just off the corner of the stage and partially blocks some views for the audience. The actors weaved in and about beautifully crafted trees representing the play's namesake, which stand behind a framed "room." The ensemble sometimes scampered within a matter of inches of the house, bringing the audience into the on-stage action and allowing for a closer look at the ensemble's beautiful period costuming.

On the whole, Strawdog's "Cherry Orchard" is a challenging piece executed fabulously by a talented cast and crew. The century-old plot line still manages to resonate with audiences through the ensemble's nuanced and versatile performances. This is a unique production very much worth checking out.

Performances of "Cherry Orchard" continue through Saturday, March 28, with shows Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. and Thursday performances at 8 p.m. on March 19 and 26. All shows take place in Strawdog's space at 3829 N. Broadway, just a few blocks from the Sheridan stop of the Red Line. For tickets, call 773-528-9696 or visit

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to to read more of his work.