Dianne Wiest in The Cherry Orchard
(© Carol Rosegg)
Dianne Wiest in The Cherry Orchard
(© Carol Rosegg)
In his highly effective, stripped-down production of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, now at Classic Stage Company, director Andrei Belgrader eschews the sort of grand political statements and visual displays that some of his celebrated colleagues (Howard Davies, Sam Mendes, Peter Brook) have brought to this timeless drama.

Instead, utilizing a severely truncated translation by John Christopher Jones (which runs a mere two hours and fifteen minutes with intermission), Santo Loquasto's minimalist, white circular set, and -- most of all -- a crackerjack team of first-rate actors led by Dianne Wiest and John Turturro, Belgrader zeroes in on the messy hearts and minds of these troubled Russian folk.

The play takes place just as Ranevskaya (Wiest), the now-penniless owner of a large Russian mansion, returns home after a five-year sojourn in Paris, where she ran away with her lover shortly after the death of her seven-year-old son.

The house -- and more importantly -- its legendary cherry orchard, are about to be sold at auction to pay off the debt. There is a solution -- one proposed by Lopakhin (Turturro), a former servant turned highly prosperous businessman: to sell the property and subdivide the orchard into summer homes. But Ranevskaya, with her sentimental attachment to the orchard and her general lack of business sense, won't hear of it, nor will her foolish, slightly foppish older brother Gaev (Daniel Davis, in a stunning, occasionally heartrending performance).

One other solution looms on the horizon: Lophakin wants to marry Ranevskaya's highly practical daughter Varya (Juliet Rylance, simply extraordinary in her anger and vulnerabilty), and while the feeling is mutual -- neither has the courage to express their wishes. Their unhappy parting at play's end is almost unbearably sad.

Wiest, with her natural intelligence, wisely opts not to portray Ranevskaya as some silly, brainless woman, but rather as someone who leads completely with her heart. She's a creature of constant impulse, which is why she spends money unthinkingly on an expensive lunch and berates herself an hour later, or cruelly insults her son's former tutor, Trofimov (a fine, earnest Josh Hamilton) and begs forgiveness seconds later. She's smart enough to know many of her decisions are wrong, or at least, misguided, but her head is not the one in control.

The same can be said of Turturro's superbly conceived Lophakin. The actor chooses a slightly less jovial approach to the character than others I've seen; he's still socially inept and boorish, but with a slightly sinister edge. And his explosion after he reveals to Ranevskaya (whom he loves deeply but also despises for her myopia) that he has bought the estate is almost terrifying.

While the shortened translation gives some of the play's secondary characters less to do than usual, the entire cast delivers completely committed performances, most notably the ever-amazing Alvin Epstein as the elderly servant Firs; the sublime Roberta Maxwell as the sardonic governess Charlotta (men in the first row beware, you may become her accomplices); the delicious Michael Urie as the bumbling servant Epikhodov; and the sexy and menacing Slate Holmgren as the selfish servant Yasha.