Theater review: 'The Cherry Orchard' at People's Light brings the highest compliments

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

Adams' also takes note – to a degree I've not seen before – of Chekhov's intent that the play is a comedy. Some of this is very effective – I've rarely seen the quick by-play among the smaller characters register so well.

Mark Garvin

There’s much to be said for People’s Light’s handsome, vibrant production of The Cherry Orchard, which features star glamour (guest artists Mary McDonnell and David Strathairn in the sister/brother leading roles of Lyubov and Leonid), seamlessly integrated alongside the fine company ensemble. 

First and most important, director Abigail Adams clearly has a deep understanding of this immensely complex work.  Throughout, she firmly etches details – multiple storylines, including old love affairs ending, new ones beginning, and business transactions that will forever alter everybody’s lives – while also painting the larger picture of a graceful but antiquated world, giving way to a more efficient but harsher modern one. 

Adams’ also takes note – to a degree I’ve not seen before – of Chekhov’s intent that the play is a comedy.  Some of this is very effective – I’ve rarely seen the quick by-play among the smaller characters register so well.

Still, there are many touching moments. McDonnell in particular is responsible for many of them.  She’s a fascinating Lyubov – less warm than other actresses I’ve seen in the role, but I’m not sure warmth is what’s called for.  What McDonnell brings is something odder – still lovely and alluring, with distracted, breathless fragility that is both appealing and off-putting. 

She’s well paired with Strathairn, an aristocratic Leonid who is simultaneously bumbling and somehow noble.  Among the other actors, there is especially fine work from Peter Pryor, a brusque but sympathetic Lopakhin; Luigi Sottile, louche and smarmy as Yasha, and Graham Smith, a loveable, funny old Firs.  (Adams and company use an excellent adaptation by writer and director Emily Mann, which very occasionally sounds too contemporary.)

I have a couple of reservations.  A few performances seem in a different, very much more modern world than the rest of the cast – this is true of Pryor; also of the lovely Olivia Mell as Anya.  Both are fine on their own, but too different from the other actors in style.  (Very likely this is a conscious choice, since the tension between the old world and the modern one is a significant theme inCherry Orchard, but I still found it jarring here.)  Also, for my taste, there’s a too much emphasis on the comedy, which robs a few scenes – the faltering courtship of Lopakhin and Varya, for example – of their poignancy. 

Still, this is a production, which, in the details as well as the overall conception, honors both the play, and People’s Light.  I left thinking that, surely, The Cherry Orchard is the greatest play written in the 20th century – and that’s about the highest compliment I can offer.

Through March 8, People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA, (610)

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