The oft-touted bit of wisdom, “Those who fail to learn from [personal] history are doomed to repeat it,” is deftly, painfully illustrated by nearly every character that populates Chekhov’s famous orchard.
In Tom Murphy’s relatively new version (2004) of the 1904 original, there’s little doubt that this Russian tragedy (usually called a comedy) plays equally well with the populous of the Emerald Isle.
Under first-time-at-Shaw director Jason Byrne’s care of his countryman’s script, the opening two acts totter between an over-abundance of sleepiness and an unstoppable parade of the cast as they tramp up and down the Court House Theatre staircases onto Peter Hartwell’s sparse set. After the interval, the pace and delivery improves considerably.
In many ways, the star of the show is the Ranyevskaya estate. For generations, the sprawling house and huge cherry orchard have generated abundant wealth and solid reputations—but that long streak began to unravel after the current mistress married beneath her—a lawyer, no less! Knowing where all of the gentry’s bodies are buried (and barely keeping his own out of the servants’ crypt) is the long-standing butler, Firs. Al Kozlik gives a heroic performance that haltingly glues both the back-story and generational divides together. The model of decorum in tails and gloves, having to infuse a few expletives of “shit” into his slight accent makes the ear wish that those moments had been lost in translation.
As the reigning matriarch—just back from a five-year, self-exile stint in Paris/Monaco—Laurie Paton shows remarkable skill on the dotty side of her persona but can’t find the same degree of surety with her dark past (a husband who “died of champagne,” a three-year-old son—tragically drowned in his parents’ stream, and a feckless/selfish lover who still commands her heart).
As the play begins, Lyubov Andreyevna Ranyevskaya and her entourage are returning to their birthplace—virtually paupers. Yermolay Lopakhin, the rags-to-riches businessman who’s accumulated enough cash to buy anything but … is given a dynamic rendering from Benedict Campbell. The bitter-sweet scene when the family’s fortunes are finally righted as the wily entrepreneur outbids all comers—the storied property has been auctioned off—is a whisky/vodka fuelled tour de farce by the versatile actor, dancing his tipsy way to the floor with the greatest of ease.
Small victory; big price: Soon, the house will be emptied and levelled even as every fruit tree will feel the axe of progress when the hectares are parcelled off and sold to city folk in search of holiday homes.
Yet it need not be so.
Lopakhin has the hots for semi-adopted Varya Ranyevskaya (coolly portrayed by Severn Thompson, only to be saddled with a clumpy set of keys that would give tri-towers supers a huge dose of belt envy). She, apparently, dotes on him. When prodded by Lyubov to express his semi-intentions (women didn’t ask their bashful beaus to tie the knot in Chekhov’s day), there’s an odd moment when it seems he’d much rather settle down with mommy dearest.
Vrai daughter Anya (Robin Evan Willis is radiant at every turn) vows to plant a new orchard and await her mother’s unlikely return from Paris II. Her Uncle Leonid (Jim Mezon is a delight as the over-talkative relation whose Ode to the Bookcase is one of the few first-half highlights) is doomed to become a banker. Gord Rand tries his academic best to portray perpetual student Petya Trofimov, needing just a few more shots of wry to bring the radical part home—he’s back to the books, still “unmoved by love.”
Younger servant Yasha (Mark Uhre, a pleasure when it’s his turn to sing a serenade) gets his wish and will accompany Madame back to the city of real champagne; his head-over-feels-for-him colleague, Dunyasha (Julie Martell) hopes for a letter from the continent (and continues to dress and coif above her station). Just as he’s able to begin paying back the numerous personal loans, family friend Boris (a wonderfully nuanced performance from Neil Barclay) is suddenly abandoned, offering a touching final wish: “Think well of me if my demise is reported,” says the survivor of two strokes to his sometime lenders. Conjurer/governess Carlotta (Gabrielle Jones) will accept a position in town for—without work—the orphan’s life has no meaning.
Exeunt, false smiles, little hope all around. It falls to Firs (ill and forgotten by those he’d continue to serve even after winning his freedom) to have the last word. With no one left to tend, it’s a fitting time for his journey’s end even as the audience braces to return to the real world, trying to find their own way through life’s travesties and disappointments. JWR