The early chill of pre-winter was just the perfect shade of bitter for an opening night of a Chekov play. It was to be the first of four shows on an excessively busy weekend, which might’ve been perfect for Chekov as well. The Helfaer Theatre on the campus of Marquette University was filled with a more generous mix of different demographics than one might expect from a college show. The theatre wasn’t sold out, but it was quite well attended for the first of two weekends’ performances of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard—the first of two such productions to appear onstage in Milwaukee this season.
The story of a wealthy family forced to make concessions for dreadful financial times by selling an ancestral home slowly imposed itself on the stage. The set itself was cleverly laid out for the type of budget that Marquette has available to it. There was a rocking chair, a child’s table, a bookcase, a set of windows overlooking long tapestries representing the cherry orchard of the title . . . and a certain weariness about things. Maybe it was the way the light cascaded across the stage or the well-worn look of the floorboards or something else that evaded identification, but whatever it was, there was a feeling of a great, impending rest, which made for an interesting atmosphere at the star of a play.
The story of a family at the end of its fortunes migrated across the stage in the way a drama by Chekov usually does. As usual, Marquette had put together an ensemble that shared some really clever moments. Jennifer Shine is emotionally affecting as Liubov Ranyevskaya—owner of the estate that is about to pass out of her hands completely. Bonnie Auuston has a kind of youthful vitality in the role of her daughter that makes for a very interesting dynamic when one considers that these are both seniors at Marquette and roughly the same age. With only one or two rather nagging little exceptions, the cast does a remarkable job of representing a pretty wide spectrum of ages in the family. Nearly everyone in the cast is roughly the same age, but here we see them represent a rather large cast of Chekov characters with a degree of deftness.
The staging is relatively straightforward, with a particularly inspired Act III. The Act is set to be a party as seen from a drawing room that certain individuals adjourn to in order to break from the main party in the ballroom. Director Maureen Kilmury has the majority of the stage set-up as the drawing room, but rather than merely have the ballroom implied offstage, we can see a portion of it going on through an archway in the distance. Figuring rather prominently in the scene is Carlotta the governess who is something of an eccentric entertainer. Genevieve Grdina has a magnetic charm in the role of Carlotta throughout the production. She is seen providing clever comic in the margins of the action a number of times. Near the end of the play as the Ranyevaskayas’ furniture and personal belongings are all packed away at the end of the play, we see the governess deftly miming the act of leaning up against a nonexistent dresser of some sort in a moment that probably couldn’t sound nearly as interesting as it appears onstage.
The play slowly draws to a close. There is the sound of axes against trees. The long, sheer tapestries representing the cherry orchard flutter to the ground. Lights fade.
Marquette University’s production of The Cherry Orchard runs through November 23.