Robert Falls is now the former artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, but he’s still formidable. Falls has always been deft at giving classic plays velocity and at sharpening the barbs in classic works’ often-buried humor. For Goodman’s current production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” Falls has adapted the classic for speed and to make the laugh lines snap so wickedly hard that they elevate the play’s pathos. Falls’ adaptation also strikes a balance between a contemporary American idiom that the frenetic bit is more immediate and a more studied, slightly more archaic idiom that works for the more impassioned and poetic stretches of monologue and philosophical conversation.
For this swan song of sorts, Falls has also assembled a heck of a bevy of swans—many among the best actors on Chicago stages—as the play’s archetypical aristocrats, servants, dreamers and strivers. They preen, they squawk and scrounge. The director works old-fashioned pratfalls into the opening moments of the play. Simon Yepikhodov, the perpetually clumsy accountant to the soon-to-be-auctioned-off Ranevsky estate trips and literally spills into the set, sending a giant bouquet of irises flying. Yepikhodov announces that “Everyday something disastrous happens to me, but who am I to complain? I’m used to it. What else can I do but keep smiling?” Then he promptly trips over a chair. And we’re off!
Falls has returned regularly to Chekhov during his long run at The Goodman, and the pathos of the works is never lost. Even so, this production has the physical frenzy of a crowded George S. Kaufman play, with players constantly running into each other and shifting moods. Chekhov is justly famous for the naturalism of his works, for the emotions conveyed in the silences of his characters. Falls gives us all that, but finds a way to keep the emotional mercury bouncing from moment to moment. And combines it with the sort of sympathetic, risible regard for fading, doltish aristocrats found in any number of early twentieth-century European comedies, operettas or work of, say, film director Ernst Lubitsch.
It’s a heavy lift for the cast, but they keep on hoisting. At the center is the remarkable Kate Fry as Lyubov Ranevskaya. In her characterization of the pauperized grand dame, we see the toll that love and tragedy have had on her. Lyubov’s inability to grasp how money works and its worldly value is one of the factors hastening the sale and dissolution of her family’s once-lavish estate. In Fry’s sensitive working of the role, however, we see how Lyubov’s addiction to spending is tied to her grief and need for love as the one tonic for her trauma. As Leonid Gayev, Lyubov’s aloof, over-educated dimwit brother with the nose that is offended by peasants’ smell, Christopher Donahue creates a wonderful character of the sensitive sort that would normally get our sympathy, but whose willingness to talk and reluctance to listen make one glad his type of aristocrat is getting his humbling due.
There’s one character Falls’ take on the play refuses to treat subtly—it’s the successful businessman Yermolai Lopakhin played by Kareem Bandealy. As the former serf and son and grandson of slaves, Bandealy conveys both Lopakhin’s energy and kindness. He is a model of communicating without speaking, and he conveys both his character’s aching desire, both erotic and striving, for Lyubov, and his cloaked revulsion at Lyubov’s adopted daughter, who was not born an aristocrat, but who loves him. Lopakhin, however, has a triumphal moment at the end of the play, which Falls has chosen to also make a moment of extreme triumphalism. Lopakhin’s delicate dancing between capitalism and his genuine sensitivity to Lyubov and her family ends with a raving megalomaniacal speech delivered in the style of an action-movie villain.
The delicacy of the production, however, is restored as the family of the estate gathers for its goodbyes to their former place and station, and at last hurry to catch their train to their unknown future. “The Cherry Orchard” was Chekhov’s last play. With it, he proved remarkably prescient about the changes that would sweep through Russia. He did not, however, predict how enduring his stage work would be, and how vital it remains. Thank you, Robert Falls, for a wonderful, doubly poignant exit. Falls’ take on the play will likely endure, too, and predicts new beginnings for the director.
“The Cherry Orchard” at Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, (312)443-3800, goodmantheatre.org. Through May 7.