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Review: 'Cherry Orchard' blooms beautifully

Jim Rutter of Philadelphia Inquirer

What does it say about the Philadelphia theater community that, in the span of a single week, I could see two stunning adaptations of two classic 19th-century plays - first, Ingmar Bergman's suspense-filled Nora at Delaware Theatre Company, then Emily Mann's blissful, humorous 2000 reworking of Chekhov's 1904 The Cherry Orchard at People's Light?

The Cherry Orchard depicts a once-wealthy Russian family on the brink of ruin, as matriarch Ranevskaya (Mary McDonnell) and her windbag brother Gayev (David Strathairn) bungle chances to save the estate their family inhabited for generations.

Like Bergman's take on A Doll's House, Mann's adaptation alters the original's themes and focus. Where Chekhov illustrated the aftermath of social changes in Russia during the czarist aristocracies, Mann dramatizes the folly of people ignoring changing economic circumstances. Where Chekhov's characters' search for meaning in work or love rises to the level of existential lament, Mann's centering of the play on its comedic elements serves as a parable of missed opportunities and hesitation, and the cost of holding on to the values of a bygone age for sentiment's sake.

Abigail Adams stages the play as a portrait of folly in defeat, while enhancing the longing that frivolity oft distracts from. Her lingering direction turns each scene into a still-life portrait, her blocking freezing the cast in moments of joy or sorrow, wonder and nostalgia. Original music composed and performed onstage by Melissa Dunphy enhances each emotion. Despite my laughter at Mann's comedy, "lovely" is the only word I can use to describe the experience; like a vacation to a Golden Age, this production packed my bags with the fear and happiness these people carry.

As the successful businessman Lopakhin, Pete Pryor joins McDonnell and Strathairn to lead a phenomenal ensemble of local and Broadway veterans. While McDonnell's smile glows through each loss, and Strathairn fumbles through his speeches, Pryor leaps out like a beacon, blending the humility and confidence of transcending a bad upbringing to build a fortune without having the values to act on it sans a bit of barbarism.

That People's Light could build its ensemble around two Academy Award nominees, McDonnell and Strathairn, turns this play into a parable on another level. While some companies (and some critics) natter over tangential social justice issues relating to the art form, this amazing production and People's Light's continued success provide a lesson about avoiding financial straits while enhancing the value of theater for our changing region.

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