Edmond Genest, Erin Partin, Laila Robins,and Alison Weller in The Cherry Orchard
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Edmond Genest, Erin Partin, Laila Robins,
and Alison Weller in The Cherry Orchard
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Laila Robins' entrance as Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya in the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's highly recommended producton of the The Cherry Orchard is the essence of Anton Chekhov. Let's lose control here and say that it's the quintessence -- and alone worth the price of admission. It's not an easy entrance either: Ranevskaya is returning home after a five-year absence during which she's had to deal with the death of a son and a lover's unfortunate treatment. When she finally arrives, she's entering her childhood nursery, the same one where her late son also played with the still-present hobby horse.

Robins' superlative achievement is that the instant she enters the house -- surrounded by daughter Anya (Erin Partin), who traveled with her, and those who've waited until dawn to greet her -- her survey of the room is both heartbreaking and funny. She's moved deeply, but also unable to stop herself from dramatizing the emotions stirred in her. You laugh at her even as your eyes are welling up. This ability of Chekhov's to elicit laughs and tears simultaneously as he presents his multi-layered characters is what makes him inimitable.

But Chekhov's autumnally comic plays can't reach their vaunted level if those delivering the lines fall short of the demands. In a heartbeat, Robins brings Chekhov to throbbing, tormented life. It helps immensely that, with cheekbones so high they could be on stilts and a mouth turned down in perpetual melancholy, she looks to the manor born. Here, the manor in question is doomed to be sold unless Ranevskaya and her brother Leonid (Edmond Genest) agree to a deal that involves selling their beloved cherry orchard, a pragmatic solution that they refuse to accept. Ranevskaya is foolish about this, but Chekhov and Robins make her foolishness immeasurably profound and somehow noble, even as the axes are eventually heard felling the first trees.

Robins' other gift is that she can shift mood in mid-sentence, mid-word, mid-syllable. The scene in which she upbraids the perpetual student/tutor/pre-revolutionary Pyotr (Robbie Collier Sublett) on the necessity of love is aflame with angry passion.

The beauty part of Bonnie J. Monte's production is that Robins isn't alone in suggesting the complex nature of these characters, each of whom is unconsciously skilled at repeatedly bruising others while also being ineffably bruised. The cast is uniformly efffective: Partin is a cheerful, easily bored Anya; Alison Weller is hopeful and impatient as Varya; Genest is lost and blithe as Leonid; Sherman Howard is gruff and imploring as the merchant Lopakhin; Sublett is volatile and contrite as Pyotr; Bernard Barak Sheredy is flighty as the loyal landowner Ermolai; Stephanie Roth Haberle is cynical as the rootless governess Charlotta; Paul Niebanck is clumsy as the honest clerk Epikhodov; Caitlin Chuckta is eager as the hurtful maidservant Dunyasha; and Josh Carpenter is snide as the ambitious valet Yasha.

Monte has not only directed the show and adapted it from Julius West's translation, she's also the sound designer who pipes in the third-act klezmer music. (The tasks of costume and lighting design were left to Maggie Dick and Steve Rosen, both of whom came through with taste and sensitivity.) High praise must also go to set designer Marion Williams, who neatly answers the call for three very different environments in the four hilarious, aching acts. It's in her evocation of the eponymous cherry orchard, however, that she's truly triumphant. In many treatments of this play, the orchard isn't even seen -- but here there are a number of trees in full bloom. Set before them are three telescoping, hollow false proscenia into which Williams has poured cherry tree blossoms and branches. In an inspired use of visual metaphor, Williams has made it appear that the cherry orchard is hugging the characters while stifling them. You can practically hear Chekhov applauding the set -- and Robins -- from his too early grave.