For the last play he programmed as Goodman’s artistic director, Robert Falls chose a masterpiece about change and endings—Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” Falls says it was an “unconscious” move on his part—it was just a play he has always wanted to do.
“I’ve been thinking about ‘The Cherry Orchard’ for some time. Even before my decision to step down after thirty-five years as artistic director, it had been on my list of plays,” says Falls in an interview with Newcity. “It’s the last of the four major Chekhov works, and Chekhov is my favorite writer after Shakespeare, so it just seemed to be a natural—a play I wanted to do because I hadn’t done it. And then I realized, oh, this play does have a certain resonance and probably, personally. I’m not fully sure what that is yet. I’m discovering it in the process.”
Falls had already directed “The Seagull,” “Three Sisters” and “Uncle Vanya,” the three other major plays. To mount what many consider Chekhov’s greatest work, Falls is using a process he developed after visits in 2008 and 2010 to the Moscow Art Theatre—the place that in many ways gave birth to modern theater.
“I had been directing plays for twenty years and was finding myself growing a little stale,” Falls recalls. He dug into Jean Benedetti’s translations of Konstantin Stanislavski’s work on acting, which “sort of excited me.”
Falls then went to Moscow and saw rehearsals, classes and performances which led him to rethink his own work and the debt everyone in theater owes to Stanislavski, his Moscow Art Theatre co-founder Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, and other Russian artists. He decided to walk in “those very, very large shoes” for his acclaimed production of “The Seagull” at the Goodman in 2010.
Another source of inspiration was English teacher and director Michael Alfreds, who believes that a play could be truly spontaneous—different every night—if the actors are really trained and immersed in the play, more than directed. “The Seagull” had more than twice the usual rehearsal time of three-and-a-half weeks.
“It was controlled improvisation because the actors know so much about their characters in the play that they were able to freely interact with each other, which meant there was tremendous spontaneity in the work,” Falls says. Through this method, actors come to understand their parts so well that the action comes almost organically, rather than the director just saying “stand there” and “faster, slower.”
“It really enriches the performance, and it’s fun for me and it’s fun for the actors,” says Falls, though he never got that much rehearsal time again. “I’ve continued to use that work in other plays, including plays by Ibsen and Shakespeare and contemporary writers.”
Falls brought this approach to his 2017 production of “Uncle Vanya,” and again to the “Cherry Orchard,” which has five weeks of rehearsal. The nineteen-member cast, which includes Chicago powerhouses Christopher Donahue as Gayev and Kate Fry as Madame Ranevskaya, has worked on understanding their characters and the historical context through exercises and improvisation. Falls spent “an unusual amount of time around the table,” he says, talking about the play, before the actors got to their feet.
The production will have three sets, both abstract and realistic, designed by Todd Rosenthal. Costumes by Ana Kuzmanic will reflect the nineteenth century, but will not be museum copies. “There’s a kind of lift of theatricality in both the settings and the costumes—it’s not literal realism,” Falls says.
Written in 1903, “The Cherry Orchard” revolves around an aristocratic Russian landowner who returns to her family’s estate just before it is auctioned away. Chekhov called it a comedy, while Stanislavski called it a tragedy—though Falls notes that Chekhov’s description may have been a bit over the top, in reaction to Stanislavski.
“Cherry Orchard” is more comical than any of Chekhov’s other plays, Falls says. It has an almost farce-like quality at times, with jokes, malapropisms, slamming doors, and people tripping and falling over each other. “I think essentially the work has a comic energy, but underneath it, a tragic sense,” he says.
Falls notes that some people mistakenly go to the theater thinking Chekhov will be heavy and dull. “Of course, he’s hilariously funny in all of these plays—there’s an absurdity to the situation all of these characters find themselves in,” Falls says. “He really is writing with enormous sensitivity and accuracy. He was a doctor, and [had] almost an objective sense of the human tragedy, which is also the human comedy, simultaneously.”
With “Cherry Orchard,” Falls believes Chekhov made a “somewhat radical step” out of the nineteenth century into the twentieth. “He’s taking that step into what will become modernism,” Falls says. “I think you can draw a straight line from this play to the work of Samuel Beckett.”
With its portrayal of Russia in the years before the revolution, “The Cherry Orchard” may feel particularly relevant now, another time of swift societal change. Metaphorical cherry orchards seem to be falling all around us.
“I think ‘The Cherry Orchard’’s popularity is because it tends to reflect what change is going on in society,” says Falls. “The play does speak to a generational change, a political change that’s happening in the world. Many of the themes of the play are relevant to the social shift that people are still trying to understand right now.”
What’s next for Falls, who retired as Goodman’s artistic director last September? He’s working on a number of other projects. One possibility is subsequent productions of Rebecca Gilman’s “Swing State,” which debuted at the Goodman in 2022. Falls says he will continue to direct and develop projects, both new and classical.
For now, he’s focusing on “The Cherry Orchard” and is always learning something new. “Even though I’ve worked very hard on this adaptation, I find myself in the rehearsal room with no idea of what’s coming next in the text, and really keeping it in the hands of the actors to explore.”
“The Cherry Orchard” at the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, goodmantheatre.org, (312)443-3800. April 1-April 30.