Friday, April 14, 2023

‘Life’s gone by’

             Kareem Bandealy, left, stars with Kate Fry in "The Cherry Orchard"
                    (Liz Lauren/Goodman Theatre)

     “Just another production ...” Robert Falls lied Monday night, in front of friends, colleagues and family at the dinner in his honor before opening night of “The Cherry Orchard,” his last play in 36 years as artistic director at the Goodman Theatre.
     OK, “lied” is strong — overly dramatic, if you will. I can’t see into his heart. Falls, no doubt, did approach the Anton Chekhov classic, as he claims, with professional aplomb, as the most recent of the countless theatrical endeavors he guided over the nearly half-century that he has blazed as the brightest star on Chicago’s theatrical scene.
     But forgive me if I insist that the man who pulled the pin on Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” in 2018 to resist Donald Trump steamrolling American life didn’t just shrug, close his eyes and pick “The Cherry Orchard” because his finger stopped its blind dance over the Cs on his bookshelf. This is a puzzle box; there are messages hidden here.
     “Life’s gone by,” says Firs, the aged peasant. “It’s like I never lived it. All gone now.”
OK, maybe not so hidden. Chekhov labeled his last play, written as he was dying, a “comedy.” Falls certainly provides farce aplenty, with Yepikhodov’s pratfalls and squeaky boots. Still, that’s passing comic relief in a play that includes a dead child, coldly spurned romantic gestures and a theme of facing the debts of the past that seem more 2023 than 1904.
     “Can’t you hear the voices of all those dead souls bought and sold by your family?” Trofimov, the “mangy moth-eaten student” demands of the maudlin aristocracy. “You’ve all been corrupted by it. ... If we want to live in the present, we have to atone for our past and break with it.”
     But breaking with the past can hurt. While hesitating to summarize the plot of a Russian play — the names tend to blend together — I think I can get away with saying when “The Cherry Orchard” opens, the aristocratic family is bankrupt and their estate is about to be sold. Lyubov, the grandiose matron of the family, and her entourage have returned from her self-imposed exile in Paris, where she has blown through the last of the money.

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