BYU’s production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” is as dismally comic and comically dismal as one expects from the Russian playwright.
Directed by Barta Lee Heiner, the cast is practically a Who’s Who of BYU theater. Their collective talent and experience are brought to bear as they manage to make their frustratingly indecisive characters come across as sympathetic and likable.
Liubov Ranyevskaya (Emmelyn Thayer) has returned from France to find her cherished estate on the verge of foreclosure. Practical businessman Lopakhin (Javen Ronald Tanner) suggests leveling the orchard and selling off plots of land for summer homes, but Liubov and her brother, Leonid (James C. Bybee), are too sentimental to allow that.
Instead, they do nothing. In fact, no one does anything during the whole play, except for Lopakhin, who buys the estate at auction and triumphs in rising above his family’s heritage of serfdom. (Tanner’s performance as he revels in his success is nothing short of electrifying.) But Lopakhin fails to propose marriage to Liubov’s daughter Varya (Melissa Yacktman) when he has the chance, ultimately putting him in the same category as all the other family friends and hangers-on who populate the play: full of dreams but devoid of ambition.
These are people who would be profoundly unhappy if they cared enough about life to be unhappy about it. As it is, they engage in trivial conversations and ignore reality until the axes are actually chopping down the cherry trees, both literally and figuratively.
Thayer is convincing and tragic as Liubov, particularly in her Act II revelations about her past. One feels her pain and sympathizes with it, even while silently chewing her out for not acting to prevent it. Ary Farahnakian is characteristically loopy as comic-relief Yepikhodov, and Jjana Valentiner Morrill’s portrayal of Carlotta is mysteriously affecting. Her sleight-of-hand magic tricks make her the personification of all the other facade-laden characters.
The entire cast is strong, with Dax Craven’s poetic-but-cynical college student Petya and Bob Nelson’s stuck-in-the-past butler Firs adding more depth and emotional charge.
There is humor in the show, though the tone is overall dreary. Chekhov meant the ending to be anti-climactic and for the play as a whole to go nowhere. This production succeeds in both regards — an odd achievement, perhaps, but a difficult one to pull off while still making the play watchable. Kudos to a talented cast and director.
It was a pleasure to see so much BYU talent all on one stage. I wish I'd had more space to mention all their names, especially since some of them were friends of mine, but oh well.
Javen Tanner, a pal since we were in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" together, is one of those actors who really doesn't care what critics say about him, but I've always liked him and considered him to be talented, even when I didn't care much for what he was doing (like in "Waiting for Godot"). He's really funny in real life, and he knows everything about everything.