Kate Burton and Mark Blum
in The Cherry Orchard
(© T Charles Erickson)
Kate Burton and Mark Blum
in The Cherry Orchard
(© T Charles Erickson)
All too often, productions of Anton Chekhov's seminal play, The Cherry Orchard end up as a three-ring circus of disjointed character shtick. So it's cause to celebrate that Richard Nelson's new translation/adaptation keeps the action flowing. Better yet, Huntington Theatre artistic director Nicholas Martin marshals his star-laden cast in such a way that everyone shines, most notably Kate Burton as the beleaguered Madame Ranevskaya, whose unwillingness to sell her beloved estate leads to despair.

A sense of imminent, inescapable loss looms throughout the play, as it should (and Ralph Funicello's time-worn nursery and birch-encircled cemetery grove serve to reinforce the mood). However, Nelson's smooth, contemporary-sounding wordings manage to uncover the lode of humor that Chekhov also laid out -- the little absurdities that make our one-way trajectory toward dissolution almost bearable. One of the biggest laughs of the evening comes when the accident-prone clerk, Yephikhodov (well played by Jeremy Beck) muses, "What is wrong with our weather?"

Burton's portrayal of Ranevskaya is a revelation -- of Burton's capabilities, as well as the character's hidden depth. She doesn't overplay the flibbertigibbet spendthrift; neither does she mask the lingering grief that immobilizes Ranevskaya in the face of certain disaster. Burton aces the air and intonations of a worldly woman who has always gotten by on her charm; yet the actress is ready, at a moment's notice, to reveal the untoward emotions that have added up to a not-always-pretty life.

For example, Ranevskaya's precis of her sojourn in Paris -- presented to the idealistic student Trofimov (played with Tolstoyan fervor by Enver Gjokaj) -- has always seemed little more than an aside. Here, it's at the core. When Ranevskaya counters Trofimov's boast that he's "above love" with the remark, "Then I suppose I am beneath it," we understand her inability to rise to her own defense.

Burton is abetted by an almost uniformly brilliant ensemble: Mark Blum as her ineffectual, bloviating brother, Gaev; veteran comedienne Joyce Van Patten as the odd-duck governess Charlotta; local luminary Will LeBow as the arriviste ex-peasant Lopakin; and Sarah Hudnut as Varya, Ranevskaya's adopted daughter turned officious chatelaine. (Her closing scene, when Varya hopes to wrest a proposal from Lopakin, is a killer!)

Jessica Rothenberg, the Boston University student who plays Anya -- Ranevskaya's younger daughter -- is a bit of a weak link. She sounds young, but not in a way that would seem intentional; her high-pitched vocal rhythms plod. Worse yet, the Act III closer, in which Anya assumes the parent's role in trying to console her mother, represents a missed opportunity. It ought to break your heart and it doesn't. But you've only to wait until the ancient servant Firs, nicely underplayed by Tony Award winner Dick Latessa, dodders on at the end for that to happen.

During Martin's soon-to-end six-season reign, Huntington audiences have grown accustomed to productions as thoughtful as they are polished. This Cherry Orchard is one more such gem.