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Perpetual Students: A Historic Look at Chekov's THE CHERRY ORCHARD on Broadway

By: Oct. 30, 2016
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The Cherry Orchard is Anton Chekhov's masterpiece about a family on The Edge of ruin-and a country on the brink of revolution. The story of Lyubov Ranevskaya and her family's return to their fabled orchard to forestall its foreclosure captures a people-and a world-in transition, and presents us with a picture of humanity in all its glorious folly. By turns tragic and funny, The Cherry Orchard still stands as one of the great plays of the modern era.

Since its Moscow premiere in 1904, the towering tale has received nearly a dozen Broadway revivals. Being one in a handful of plays whose characters and themes have spanned over a century, The Cherry Orchard is one of the most oft-revived plays of the classical canon. The current Broadway revival is just one in a long history of visits the Russian aristocracy has paid to the Main Stem. To celebrate the most recent translation of Chekov's classic exploration of the denial of reality and eternal romanticizing of the past, Broadway World has leafed through the history books to reveal the Broadway history of, "The Cherry Orchard."

The first Broadway appearance of the classic Chekov tale was presented 1923 as part of the Moscow Art Theatre's season, under the direction of Constantin Stanislavsky. This production played at Jolson's 59th Street Theater (later re-named the New Century, demolished in 1962) throughout the winter of 1923, before transferring to the Imperial Theater in the spring of 1924 to complete its run. The play was presented in repertory with The Brothers Karamazoff, Mistress of the Inn, Ivanov, In the Claws of Life, An Enemy of the People, Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man, Uncle Vanya, The Death of Pazukhin, The Lower Depths.

The next appearance of the work would appear less than a decade later at a Shubert house, the Bijou Theater, a space which would later go on to become one of the casualties of the Great Broadway Theater Massacre of 1982. Produced by James B. Fagan, who also appeared in the production as Gayev, the revival was short-lived, running for only five performances.

Fans of the play would not have to wait long for its next incarnation, however, as less than 6 months later, a new production was produced and played at Civic Repertory Theatre, an organization founded by Eva Le Gallienne, an American actress, producer, director, and author, who would ultimately become a pioneering force in the off-Broadway movement. In founding the organization, le Gallienne also appointed herself director and lead actress of the company. As a result, she took the reigns of directing and also cast herself the role of Varya. The production ran at Civic Rep throughout the fall and winter of 1928.

It seems, however, that le Gallienne was far from through with Chekov's work, and so just a few short years later in 1933, she would go on to stage a fourth revival that ran for 30 performances at the New Amsterdam Theater, once again directing and playing the role of Varya.

le Gallienne again found herself directing and starring in the piece (this time as Ranevskaya) in a 1944 production that ran for 96 performances at the National Theater, now known as the Neaderlander Theater. Another production, also staged by and starring le Gallienne, played for just a few performances at City Center the following year.

It would be nearly twenty years until Broadway hosted its seventh production of the title, but Eva Le Gallienne remained an integral part of the play's life on the Main Stem when she once again directed the piece, this time assisted by young director, Jack O'Brien, for a run in repertory at the Lyceum Theatre. This production played in repertory throughout the spring and summer of 1968 with Exit the King, Pantagleize, and The Show Off and starred Uta Hagen in the lead role of Ranevskaya.

An eighth production, produced by ANTA and directed by John Fernald would play only 5 performances at the ANTA Playhouse in May of 1970. However, in the same decade Lincoln Center Theatre would house the title in its Vivian Beaumont Theatre, produced by Joseph Papp and featuring incidental music by downtown staple, Liz Swados.

With an all-star leading cast including Meryl Streep, Raul Julia, Mary-Beth Hurt, and Irene Worth, the production also included ensemble turns from then-unknown actors, Elizabeth Franz, Christine Estabrook, and the star of the current Broadway revival, Diane Lane. The production would go on to win Tony Awards for costume design and lighting for Santo Loquasto and Jennifer Tipton, respectively. Worth procured a Drama Desk Award for her work as Ranevskaya and a pre-Oscar Meryl Streep would be nominated for her work as Dunyasha. A return engagement of the production would play the Beaumont again later on in the same summer, much of the original cast having departed following the initial run.

It would be exactly twenty years before the title was seen on Broadway again. A special engagement produced by Moscow Arts Festival on Broadway, The Russian-American Arts Foundation, MaRina Kovalyov and Rina Kovalyov played 12 performances at the Martin Beck Theater, currently known as the Al Hirschfeld.

Now, after another nearly two decade hiatus from the troubled estate of one of the theatre's most famous families, The Cherry Orchard has returned to the Great White Way in a most modern incarnation. With a truly A-list cast, including Cherry Orchard veteran, Diane Lane, and co-stars John Glover, Harold Perrineau, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Chuck Cooper, and Joel Grey, this new production from Roundabout boasts a brand-new translation by Tony Award-winner, Stephen Karam, and direction by Simon Godwin.

Decade after decade, production after production, theatre makers and audiences alike keep returning to Chekov's fabled estate, with the play's timeless themes of the harsh denial of inevitable change growing more timely with each passing year. At a time when a panicked fetishization of our nation's past has presidential candidates calling to "Make America Great Again" the play seems especially staggeringly prevalent. History has taught us that change can be painful, but is, in fact, unavoidable and constant. It is how we choose to approach this necessary evolution that defines us at a cellular level. In that way, The Cherry Orchard shows no signs of wear in its ability to transcend time to help audiences rectify these changes and allow us to gain a better understanding of our own inevitable and timeless evolution.