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The Cherry Orchard                  Conservatory of Theatre Arts, 1999

Harry Webber - The Riverfront Times

If a perfect modern play exists, it is Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.  The action, which begins, climaxes and ends faultlessly, is contained in a natural time frame.  Each character is interesting, worthy of attention and essential.  Despite the humor of word and deed that inform every fiber of the drama, the emotions the play generates are pity, often rather contemptuous, and fear, not only for the characters but for the society in which they cannot function.  If you want to know exactly why the Russian Revolution had to happen, in The Cherry Orchard Chekhov lays pre-1917 Russia open and, like a skillful anatomist, dissects and explicates at the same time. 

That Chekhov observed social pathology so well might be a result of his medical training.  In his day, however, a physician, no matter how skilled, could actually do very little but diagnose.  He had morphine to ease pain, a few drugs for certain diseases—quinine for malaria, for instance.  If he was up on the journals, he might have some knowledge of antisepsis but no antibiotics, no antidepressants—nothing to cure, nothing to cause remission.  The Cherry Orchard is a presentation of a case, interesting but hopeless, at grand rounds, where the best doctors can do nothing more than talk intelligently about it.

The difficulty in producing The Cherry Orchard is finding actors who are capable of making even an apparently small role seem the most important part in the play. Tim Ocel, however, who has directed this production with the most delicate sensibility, coupled with absolutely breathtaking dramatic acuity, fields a cast of young actors so good that I kept saying to myself that this character or that, in small role or large, was the key to understanding the play.  Mr. Ocel’s triumph, ensemble performance as well-fitted as a high performance racing engine, simply doesn’t allow you to notice that a tall, fit young man is acting the part of a 90-year-old servant because you’re so interested in what he’s doing that what he is has become merely accidental. 

One cannot but be ravished by Susan Dietz’s person and persona in the role of Lyubov Andreyevna, an estate owner who cannot be bothered to do anything to hold onto it, even though losing it will mean poverty for her and her family.  Both in exhalation and dejection, Dietz’s body language and tuneful voice are the physical metronome to which all the others move.  I was also struck by the compelling performances of Matt Huffman as Lopakhin, who rises from peasant’s son to owner of the estate, and of James Andrew Butz as Trofimov, a no-longer-a-kid perpetual student who may be the only one who sees further than a few months into the future.

Geno A. Franco’s set is consistently as practical as it is interesting; Frank McCullough’s costumes are effective, especially for Ms. Dietz; Keith Evans’ lighting and Marc Moore’s sound are never intrusive and always helpful.

The Cherry Orchard continues through Feb. 28, in the Studio Theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center, and those who like their theater to have some substance as well as theatrical competence really should not miss this uniformly first-class production.  It’s the best Cherry Orchard I've ever seen and, in its way, the best production of any play I’ve seen in St. Louis for a couple of years.  Its director and young actors have my admiration and my gratitude.

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(Webster University)