Theater Emory’s current production of The Cherry Orchard presents an aesthetically-striking and emotionally-volatile vision for Russian dramatist and author Anton Chekhov’s final play. The first thing that strikes viewers upon entering the Mary Gray Monroe Theater (MGMT) is the careful innovation with which the physical space itself has been treated; the audience is seated so that they are not wholly separate from the play’s action but simply on its periphery.

The set blends aristocratic interiors with expanses of turf littered with ruins, giving concrete presence to the psychological and social state of many of the play’s characters. Each character contains a certain paradoxical duality – a penniless noblewoman, a son of a serf who is nearly a millionaire, a student who will seemingly never graduate – and the set successfully embodies these contradictions.

The Cherry Orchard centers on the return of an aristocratic woman, Ranevskaya, to her native home after having lived abroad in Europe for several years. Along with her foppish brother and daughters, Ranevskaya faces the task of finding a way to save the estate’s finances or else risk losing her home at auction later in the year. Audience members soon learn the tragic circumstances under which Ranevskaya originally fled her Russian home, and it’s obvious she has not yet truly found emotional and psychological resolution from that trauma.

A retinue of valets, maids and governesses with concerns of their own attends this noble family in decline, giving the cast a certain upstairs-downstairs feel reminiscent of a twisted version of “Downton Abbey.”

The cast functions well as an ensemble, giving each character the appropriate level of visibility to appear fully developed but reasonably damaged by the situation. As Ranevskaya, however, Theater Emory’s artistic director Jan Akers masterfully provides a center for the discontent group, even if that center is proverbially one that cannot hold. Akers, who also serves as a senior lecturer in Emory’s theater department, commands the audience’s attention in her performance of the endearing, frustrating and deeply-unsettling Ranevskaya. Akers deserves a great deal of admiration for the way she balances Ranevskaya’s aristocratic appearances with the profound trauma she continues to experience. One of the most fascinating parts of watching this production is wondering just when and how severely Ranevskaya will finally lose self-control.

In the role of Ranevskaya’s brother Leonid Andreyevitch, Mark Cabus gives a delightfully sinister performance as an untrustworthy brother and manipulative uncle. Early in the play (and occasionally thereafter) he straddles a rocking horse in the estate’s nursery, establishing his appearance as a slightly-dangerous overgrown child. As the eternal student and typically-frustrated intellectual Petya, College senior Jake Krakovsky speaks with an authentic blend of conviction and subtle vulnerability.

His political and philosophical speeches provide a great deal of useful historical contextualization without feeling heavy-handed or uncomfortably like a lecture.

One unique addition to this production’s cast in particular is that of the character of Anton Chekhov himself, the playwright. According to the production’s director, Theater Studies Department Chair Tim McDonough, “[The] idea [arose] that it might illuminate The Cherry Orchard to see Chekhov learn something from the play by experiencing whatever happens to him as the story develops.” This additional presence feels a little less than convincing at first but soon feels organic and compelling.

Donald McManus, another theater studies professor and Theater Emory company member, largely plays Chekhov for comedic effect: strolling around playing a guitar, passing characters their lines on small slips of paper, whispering in characters’ ears.

Though such gestures garner a laugh from the audience, they also destabilize the sense of narrative cohesiveness within the play. The playfulness of Chekhov the character makes the action of The Cherry Orchard feel almost entirely improvisational, as if the outcome of the story is as unknown to its author as to its characters and the audience who are watching it. In a play that is so much about the cumbersome passage of time, this novel aspect makes the present feel alive and urgent throughout the show.

The laughter drawn by Chekhov’s occasional antics is not undeserved, and for all of its concern with weighty topics of death and change, The Cherry Orchard isn’t necessarily entirely a tragedy. In fact, Chekhov himself subtitled the play as a comedy. At its best moments this production seizes onto that ambiguity of genre, producing moments that are as tragic as only absurdist farce can offer.

There is a melancholic, angry bitterness that underlies most of the show’s comedic moments, and it is often the case that the audience experiences that emotional contradiction more authentically than during moments that are played in total seriousness.

These farcical moments also allow for the feeling of utter strangeness that permeates this show, a kind of strangeness that results from feeling as if one is in the middle of this unhappy family’s conflict.

– By Logan Lockner