Underneath all of the copious details, Anton Chekhov’s final play The Cherry Orchard (1904) hangs on a very simple plot:
Coming and going. Entering and exiting.
Lyubov Ranevskaya, and her retinue, return to the family estate to save it from its many creditors. Her only plan is a miracle.
The estate, famous for its cherry orchard, is associated with miracles. The cherry is a symbol of new beginnings, hope and healing. And miracles, due to the famous healing ministry of Saint Dionysius, Abbot of Glushitsa, Vologda (1362-1437), who eventually built a monastery near a bird-cherry tree. The small, black cherries contained tannin and had a bitter-sweet taste. For this reason they are sometimes known as choke cherries, or hackberries. Saint Dionysius gave these cherries to those who were ill. Their subsequent health was deemed miraculous, and the Russian cherry became associated with miracles and healing.
Exactly what the Ranevskaya family needs.
As a physician Anton Chekhov certainly knew of the cherry tree’s history of medical uses. As an Orthodox Christian he possibly was familiar with Saint Dionysius.
In any event Chekhov’s cherry orchard stands as a symbol of possible miracles and healings. The Ranevskaya family recalls the heyday of cherry production spurred, in part, by medical uses:
The ancient family servant Firs and Lyubov’s brother, Gayev, reminisce:
FIRS: In times before, about forty or fifty years ago, the cherries were dried, soaked, marinaded, and jam was made, and it used to be… ‘
GAYEV: Be quiet, Firs.
FIRS: And it used to be they’d send cartloads of dried cherries off to Moscow and Kharkov. Oh,, there was money galore! And dried cherries at that time were soft and juicy, sweet, and a good smell to them… They knew a way of doing it at that time…
MADAME RANEVSKAYA: And where on earth is that way now?
FIRS: They’ve forgotten. No one remembers it.[i]
The family considers the cherry orchard their former home. Madam Ranevskaya even imagines that she sees her mother wandering through the cherry orchard. The deaths of both Madam’s husband and young son have left the Ranevskayas without a home.
The expression “home is where the heart is ” was introduced in the J.T. Bickford novel Scandal (1857). Chekhov’s plays are famously populated with characters whose hearts are misplaced or rejected
In Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard Madam Raynevskaya has returned to her family estate. Why? It is where she lost her heart – her only son, seven-year-old Grisha, drowned only a month after her husband died 6 years ago. Both are probably buried there, along with her parents and grandparents. The recent deaths caused her to exile herself in Paris where she has trusted her heart to a false lover.
It is in her cherry orchard where she feels closest to her lost heart. The blooming cherry trees of spring remind her of the lad’s youth and promise, too soon cut off.
Without her son and husband, the estate is no longer her home. She is homeless, more bereft than the unattached governess Charlotta who knows nothing of her parentage or ancestry.
Orthodox priest Father Stephen Freeman explains that a ”home” refers more to a person than to a place. In discussing Eden, our first “home”, Father Freeman muses on “homesickness”:
Man hasn’t “been home” since he left the Garden. If there is anything Scripture teaches us it is that we are not home. Expelled from paradise, the people of God were eventually given a “promised land,” but they’ve been expelled from there ever so many times. Today, Jews, Muslims and Christians can all three complain that they’ve been expelled from the land. It’s a very large sentiment.[ii]
However, Paradise or Heaven is not a place; it is the presence of God.
On the other side of fate is the businessman, Yermolaay Lopakhin. He remembers the cherry orchard estate as owning his father, a serf. Nevertheless, his first encounter of love came from Lyubov, whose caress of his battered face he can still recall. He lost his heart to her at that time and hopes she might someday return the feeling. Director Falls stages Lopakhin’s love for Lyubov with subtle brilliance.
Now Lopakhin vows to own the cherry orchard. By purchasing the cherry orchard, he will symbolically liberate his father from the menial status in which he died. In addition, he hopes ownership of the orchard will allow Madam Ranevskaya to begin to see him as an equal, even as a possible husband.
Other characters see the orchard as a symbol of either healing or a second chance in life. The Cherry Orchard offers a secular salvation from the woes and suffering of life.
The critic Francis Ferguson called The Cherry Orchard, a play about “the suffering of change.” Since one’s “home” is such a powerful reservoir of memories, changes regarding one’s “home” can cause great “suffering” in the Aristotelian use of the word. Even attempts to save the cherry orchard, the home, amount to simply destroying it.[iii]
The maid Dunyasha dreams of a new life married to the dashing valet Yasha, but she must settle for marriage to Mr. Two-and-Twenty-Troubles, Semyon Yepikhpdhov. Madam’s youngest daughter, Anya, seems destined to end up with the failed would-be revolutionary and eternal unloving student Peter Trofimov. The adopted daughter Yarya wants only to be married to Lopakhin, but his silence dooms that dream. The totally inept Gayev, the “Confirmed Batchelor” brother, has somehow obtained a bank job, but that career will no doubt fail due to his feeble-mindedness, posturing, and endless gabbling. The neighboring landowner Boris Borisovich Simeonov-Pishchik hopes to save his estate with a miracle. And unlike Madam Ranevskaya, he gets one in the person of an investor who leases his property to mine the rich clay deposits. Firs, the resident Holy Fool, who cared for everyone in the estate, merely wants someone to care enough to get him to the hospital. He ends up on the floor, as the great sad exit occurs.
Director Robert Falls has created a lovely and evocative production. One of his final images is of the characters silently sitting on the floor of the nursery waiting for departure. Each character assumes a bodily posture indicative of their frustrated hopes and yearnings. They look off, contemplating their future.
They must behold designer Todd Rosenthal’s glorious wallpaper. Up until this moment one may have wondered if the missing Russian icons, so visible in other Chekhov plays, were in storage for transport. Now the nursery ceiling answers the question with a grand effet théâtral, as we realize the wallpaper mirrors the color and pattern of a Russian Orthodox Cathedral dome.[iv] The partcular shade of blue and the golden pointed stars identify the room as one dedicated to the Theotokos, the mother of God. Under the dome the church/temple represents Heaven.
Perhaps the longed-for miracle arrived unannounced, and in an unexpected form. Alone and silent in the starry blue room, the characters prepare themselves for a life of earth-bound homelessness.
“Salvation is the long journey home. “Within the inner life, salvation is experienced as deliverance from the domination of the false-self (the ego or the old Adam) and our daily growth in the true self, centered in the heart.”[v]
A few of the characters approach sell-realization, but most leave as deluded as they began. Chekhov sees this as part of the human condition. As Harold Clurman noted,
Chekhov’s attitude toward his people is at once objective and tender. He recognizes the nobility of their aspirations and the poverty of their actions. He portrays the contradictions in all human behavior.”[vi]
The selfless Firs makes his own exit, perhaps leading the way to the eternal home of heaven. He falls on the floor realizing
“Life just slipped by as if I’d never even lived.”
For his final production as Artistic Director Mr. Falls has assembled an all-star cast and staff. The aforementioned Todd Rosenthal, retains his place as one of America’s most exciting stage designers and the costumes of the amazing Ana Kuzmanic show how a touch as slight as brown shoes with a black suit can bring a character’s relevance to the current scene.
Kate Fry’s Lyubov and Christopher Donahue’s Gayev play up the childlikeness of the characters, unable to rise to the challenges of adulthood. If the cast had not been so uniformly excellent Kareem Bandealy could have walked off with the show, so total was his realization of Lopakhin. Raven Whitley captured the innocence and frustration of a young woman without a home for security, while Alejandra Escalante embodied the tormented patience of a love-that-would-never-arrive. Stephen Cefalu could easily have moved into the role of Jean-Paul Marat, so convincing was his revolutionary hope and fervor. Charlotta, as played by Janet Ulrich Brooks could delight any child or adult. Will Allan’s foolish bookkeeper Yepikhodov made all the correct errors. Felipe Carrasco’s Yasha and Amanda Drinkall’s Dunyasha captured the wild fearlessness of unleashed young love, while Francis Guinan’s Firs brought the wisdom of many dramatic impersonations to his magnetic and enigmatic interpretation of the role.
Thank-you Robert Falls for the Chekhov quartet of the great Russian dramatist’s last plays. A wonderful parting gift to Chicago.
[i] Eugene K Bristow, Anton Chekhov’s Plays (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1977., p. 173.
[iii] Fergusson, Francis. 1949. The Idea of a Theater: A Study of Ten Plays Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1949..
[iv] Check out Louis Sullivan’s Holy Trinity Cathedral on Chicago’s Levitt Street for confirmation
[vi] Harols\d Clurman, The Nation, 29 January, 1973.
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