The Cherry Orchard
Laila Robins gives a superlative performance in the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's excellent production of Chekhov's classic drama.
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.