It's hard to imagine an actress who wouldn't want to play Madame Lyubov Andreevna Ranevskaya. Foolish, charming, impetuous, and irresistible, the woman who owns the eponymous cherry orchard of Anton Chekhov's last play can't help commanding the center of every scene she enters. She's a star, and so naturally she attracts stars.
That's great news for the Huntington Theatre Company and its artistic director, Nicholas Martin, whose current production of "The Cherry Orchard" gains a wonderful luminescence from the star power of Kate Burton. From her first raptures in the long-abandoned nursery of her Russian estate to her last nostalgic but pragmatic farewell once the estate is sold, Burton's Ranevskaya runs through every shading of laughter and tears, giddy obliviousness and rueful understanding, joy and grief that Chekhov inspires. She is a complicated, contradictory, and utterly human creation.
If she is also a little overemphatic in her emotional swings, that's only to be expected from this silly, self-dramatizing creature. Ranevskaya is larger than life -- that's why she has a hard time finding her place in it.
Unfortunately, the rest of the Huntington production is also scaled a little large. In a perfect world, Ranevskaya would be a peacock among doves -- well, maybe not doves, because the rest of Chekhov's fading gentlefolk and rising peasants are admittedly some pretty odd ducks. But here they're all peacocks, as noisy and flamboyant and extreme as Ranevskaya herself, and the lack of contrast diminishes the complexity of the play's emotional texture.
It's also too bad that, like many another production before it, this "Cherry Orchard" tilts more toward tragedy than comedy. Yes, there's an element of sadness here, as the world shifts around Ranevskaya and she's too heedless to change along with it, but the sadness shouldn't take over. Chekhov makes no sense if you hit the melancholy too hard. He created characters who are full of odd quirks and weirdly realistic incongruities, and to attempt to turn such weirdos into tragic heroes is to rob them of the very qualities that make them seem fully alive.
Still, there's much to admire here. Ralph Funicello's set evokes the genteel decay of the mansion and the timeless beauty of its surrounding woods; a delicate curtain with cherry trees projected on it sets just the right tone of nostalgia for Martin's idea of the play, and Robert Morgan excels at both Parisian gowns and peasant wear.
As for the cast, Will LeBow resists the trend toward overacting with a scruffy, Brooklynesque Lopakin; the ambitious merchant is both acutely aware of his more aristocratic neighbors' inability to save themselves and oblivious, until it's too late, to his own insensitivity to them. Mark Blum, too, gives Ranevskaya's billiard-loving brother some nice layers; he's a bit of an idiot, but he knows it. Joyce Van Patten has fun with the deeply eccentric governess, Charlotta, but the rest of the women try too hard to match Burton's intensity.
That's an understandable temptation, and it's a common one when staging Chekhov. But the approach that works best, that presents Chekhov at his most Chekhovian, is one that relies on delicacy and small gestures, not shouting and stomps. When the cherry orchard falls, we should learn of it only from the faint echo of a distant ax.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.