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REVIEW: "The Cherry Orchard," - Young Theatre, Cal-State Fullerton

“…A Delicate Balance of Comedy and Tragedy”

Chekhov is arguably the second-greatest dramatist in history. In this, his most biographical of plays, Chekhov, who died six months after the play premiered in 1904, meditates on the last days of czarist Russia through the story of a feckless, aristocratic family whose ancestral estate must be auctioned to pay off the mortgage.

Then, adding to that painful turn of events is more distressing news. Their treasured cherry orchard is to be cleared for a housing development of summer cottages for the new middle class. Humor and hope dominate Chekhov’s twilight elegy to his treasured past, as translated by Paul Schmidt, and pointedly directed by Maria Cominis (“All My Children,” “Desperate Housewives,” “One Life to Live”).

The play is a delicate balance between "subjectively painful" and "objectively comedic" perspectives on life, and the ability to link the catastrophic with the trivial in a dramatic form, erasing the boundaries between comedy and tragedy.

In Director Cominis’ interpretation of "The Cherry Orchard," she reminds theatergoers that the century-old-plus play is at its heart a comedy, and she illuminates her scenes with broad, bittersweet and warmly wry comic moments.

Topping a formidable cast, Isobel Beaman gives a stately, luminous performance as the foolishly extravagant, debt-ridden Ranyevskaya, which she invests with grace and dignity, avoiding any fluttery or frivolous approach.

A middle-aged Russian woman, she is one who has been an aristocrat all her life, and cannot see life except from that perspective. She has faced tragedy many times in her life also, or rather has tried to escape from it. Her first name, "Liubov," means "love" in Russian, and she seems to exemplify love with her generosity, kindness and physical beauty...and sexual nature; she is the only character in the play with a lover. But even when talking about her disastrous love affairs or the pain of her child's death, she is ever correct and elegant. Her feelings of love very often cloud her judgment. She also seems unable to control her spending habits, another sign of her disconnection from her present status as an impoverished aristocrat.

The resourceful Miguel Torres portrays the pampered and self-centered Gayev, Ranyevskaya’s poetically inclined windbag brother. It is inspired casting—Mr. Torres brings a breezy, indifferent playboy flavor to the role. He has several intriguing verbal habits, frequently describing tricky billiards shots at odd and inappropriate times. He will also launch into overly sentimental and rhetorical speeches before his niece, Anya, stops him, after which he always mutters "I am silent" at least once. Gayev is a kind and concerned uncle and brother, but behaves very differently around people not of his own social class.

Bernard Hefner is a blustery and practical Lopakhin, a wealthy merchant and former serf who rose from the peasant class to become the new landowner, mainly defined by a no-nonsense practicality and energy that makes him unable to sit still when he senses work is waiting to be done. His grandparents were in fact owned by the Ranyevskaya family before freedom was granted to the serfs. Lopakhin is always extremely self-conscious, especially in the presence of Ranyevskaya, perpetually complaining about his lack of education and refinement.

Darby Sorich is lovely as the wistful, unfulfilled Varya. Jilted by the insecure Lopakhin, she doubts that he will ever propose to her. Varya is the hard-working, responsible type with a high work ethic, but is also something of cry-baby—often in tears.

Diego Noll is Firs, the eighty-seven year old family manservant. He is a wonderful curmudgeon, still serving drinks and giving orders as a doddering octogenarian. Firs is always talking about how things were in the past on the estate, when the master went to Paris by carriage instead of by train. Most probably on the verge of senility, he frequently talks about how life was before the serfs were freed.

Genevieve Kauper, in a distinguished portrayal, plays out the role of Carlotta, the family governess, like a misplaced vaudevillian. While the character is given to entertaining house guests with card tricks, at the same time, she subtly mocks their pre-occupations. She is formally dressed like a music hall performer many times and is well tutored in "sleight of hand." Carlotta is a very entertaining character, but the warm family attachment is simply not in evidence.

Caleb Gibson’s Yepikhdov, the absurdly clumsy clerk, manages to stumble over what little furniture there is with a cautiously controlled sense of slapstick.

Other portraits are well drawn by Leo Torrez, who portrays Trofimov, the philosophical “perpetual student,” and Aryana Hamzehloo, who, as the flighty housemaid, manages to invest her character with a bright saucy edge.

The Set Design by Ann Sheffield adds depth and realism with functional furniture and furnishings, denoting the lavishness of the old estate and its accompanying orchard, and the Costume Design by Hyun Sook Kim handsomely accents the fading elegance of the period.

This crisp, clean production of the Chekhov classic is not overly emotional or impassioned, but does avoid the turgidness and messy melodrama that the play sometimes falls into. There is, of course, an unstrained allegory here, of the monumental changes taking place in Russia at the turn of the 1900's, as a feudal society belatedly gave way to what would be a brief flourish of capitalism. Chekhov’s plays reveal tremendous compassion, empathy and a keen observation for the human condition in a time in which the upper classes were losing their footing and the lower classes were discovering opportunities previously denied them.

“The Cherry Orchard,” now playing March 8th through March 24th, wonderfully enacted at the Young Theatre, Cal State Fullerton. Choreography is by Lisa Draskovich-Long; Original song, “Here the Frailest Leaves of Me,” by Pamela Madsen, performed by Ernest Salem, Violin and Alison Edwards, Piano. Lighting Design by Toranj Noroozi; Makeup and Hair by Monica Liz Siazon; Sound Design by Michelle Tharp; Projections by Thomas Challain. Technical Direction by Bill Meyer and Maggie Riordan.

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

National Youth Arts


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