Anton Chekhov’s prescient drama “The Cherry Orchard” will soon take the stage at Muhlenberg College, illuminating the class struggles that permeated early 20th century Russia — which, in turn, illuminate the class struggles of today.
“‘The Cherry Orchard’ captures the full complexity of progress and what it means to live through changing times,” says director and Muhlenberg theater faculty member Matthew Moore. “It is at the same time ordinary and supremely poetic.”
The Muhlenberg Theatre & Dance Department will present “The Cherry Orchard,” in a new version by American playwright Stephen Karam, in the Baker Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance, through April 29.
“I think the play is ultimately about the human condition and our resilience in the face of life’s disappointments,” says Holly Cate, another theater faculty member, who plays the role of Lyubov Ranevskaya.
As Russia hurtles toward revolution at the start of the 20th century, a widowed aristocrat returns home after years abroad to her family’s estate, which is on the verge of financial ruin. Faced with the prospect of losing their beautiful cherry orchard and the world it seemed to represent, she and her brother cast about for a path forward — but they are too deeply immersed in memories and lost dreams of their youth to take control of their shifting fortunes.
A bittersweet story of love, loss, and social change, Chekhov’s last play offers a rich tapestry of characters, interwoven with poignant nostalgia and wry commentary on a society on the brink of upheaval.
“Chekhov plainly foresaw the coming revolution,” Moore says. “His characters encounter the coming change with different attitudes — some with naive optimism, some with an entrepreneurial spirit, some in mourning.”
Moore believes the anxieties at the heart of this play are contemporary.
“This feels like today’s America in many respects,” Moore says. “It’s hard to know if things are getting better or if everything’s going to hell in a handbasket. Progress and catastrophe seem intertwined.”
One of Russia’s best-known playwrights, Chekhov wrote “The Cherry Orchard in 1903. It premiered in Moscow the following year, after his death, helmed by renowned director and theatrical innovator Konstantin Stanislavski.
Chekhov pioneered theatrical naturalism — having his actors perform the everyday instead of the fantastic; the Russian public was used to romanticism, in which a more fantastical style of performance was much more common. Chekhov wanted audiences to experience honesty and realism when they came to the theater.
“The idea that nothing happens in Chekhov’s plays is totally false. Everything happens,” says Cate. “It’s life onstage. Affairs begin and end, familial relationships are torn and then repaired, people die, they are mourned, and communities rebuild.”
While Chekhov incorporated elements of his own life into all of his work, “The Cherry Orchard” is his most autobiographical play. When he was a teenager, his family’s beloved cherry orchard was cut down — his mother was tricked by contractors into selling the family territory.
“Every day in rehearsal you discover something true about the play that you didn’t know,” Moore says. “There’s no imagining circumstances here, only excavating truths.”
The production uses a celebrated new version by award-winning playwright Stephen Karam, written in an American vernacular and style, which debuted last year on Broadway. This is the first collegiate production of Karam’s adaptation.
“It’s so much funnier and more alive in the body than it is on the page,” Cate says. “I hope people understand how amazing it is that we are able to work with this new version.”
Karam won a Tony Award for Best Play for “The Humans” in 2016 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “The Humans” and “Sons of the Prophet.”
“‘The Cherry Orchard’ deserves a fresh presentation,” says Cate. “We are very lucky to be able to give it new life.”
Showtimes are at 8 p.m. Regular admission tickets are $15. Tickets for youth and LVAIC students and staff are $8.
Tickets and information are available online at muhlenberg.edu/theatre or by phone at 484-664-3333. Performances are in the Baker Theatre in Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance.