“My life, my youth, my happiness, farewell!” Uttered by the mesmerizing Madame Ranevskaya near the end of The Cherry Orchard, that simple lament sums up the enduring appeal of Anton Chekhov’s most celebrated play, headed to Broadway this fall with an all-American cast led by Oscar nominee Diane Lane.
“This is Chekhov made new, in a production that is invigorating and funny and passionate,” says Simon Godwin, associate director of London’s National Theatre, who will make his Broadway debut directing this fresh adaptation of the play by Stephen Karam, winner of the 2016 Best Play Tony Award for The Humans. Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production is set to begin a limited engagement on September 15 at the American Airlines Theatre.
Though The Cherry Orchard centers on a Russian family on the brink of losing its cherished estate, Godwin promises a revival with “an urgency and contemporary resonance.” It helps that Karam has emerged as a Chekhovian chronicler of American family life with both The Humans and the Pulitzer Prize finalist Sons of the Prophet. Explains Godwin, “It was important to me that our adaptation feel freshly minted for an American audience and an American company of actors, and not something inherited or borrowed from another tradition. And Stephen, who is so talented in terms of describing the American tradition today, felt like an exciting person to go to.”
The Cherry Orchard takes full advantage of Karam’s gift for depicting the quirks in characters, ranging from an ancient manservant (to be played by Tony winner Joel Grey) and a blowhard uncle (Tony winner John Glover) to Ranevskaya’s super-practical adopted daughter (three-time Tony nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger) and the businessman she loves (Harold Perrineau, best known for TV’s Lost), whose advice on saving the estate is dismissed or ignored.
And, of course, there is Ranevskaya herself, a role that has attracted a divas for a century, including Helen Hayes, Eva Le Gallienne, Judi Dench, Charlotte Rampling, Dianne Wiest, and now Diane Lane. It’s a full-circle moment for the star: At age 12, Lane appeared in the ensemble of Andrei Serban’s celebrated 1977 Cherry Orchard revival starring Irene Worth and featuring a young Meryl Streep as a flirtatious maid. “Diane brings a humanity and vivid life to the part,” says Godwin, noting that Ranevskaya is often played by much older actresses. “A lot of the other characters in the play are in love with her, and Diane is a magnetic, radiant actress playing a magnetic, radiant woman.”
Godwin compares the appeal of Ranevskaya to that of Hamlet, observing, “Actors will always be drawn to these roles because they offer so many moods and colors. Ranevskaya is impulsive, she’s cheeky, she’s serious, she’s tragic, she’s comic, she’s sexy, she’s outrageous. It’s fun to get to be so many types of characters in one.”
For audiences, the appeal of The Cherry Orchard is just as straightforward in its evocation of beloved places and possessions. “Like Shakespeare, Chekhov is very good at creating haunting images,” Godwin says. “The orchard is a symbol of everything that each person in the audience holds dear — and what happens when somebody says, ‘It’s time to leave that behind.’ For me, it has echoes of the biblical Garden of Eden: We want to stay in the safety and innocence of childhood, but life demands that we get out of our comfort zone. The myth of the cherry orchard is not just something rich people identify with. We all have things we want to cling to.”
Written less than 15 years before the Russian revolution, The Cherry Orchard includes ruminations on class and changing societal roles that remain surprisingly resonant today. “That’s what drew me,” Godwin says. “It’s a play that’s very much about progress and change and a clash of values, and it’s interesting to be doing it at a time when America is asking itself big questions about the values it wants to celebrate or leave behind. Our challenge is to take a play with a contemplative, thoughtful quality and present it with a lack of sentimentality. It’s the characters’ zest for life that makes the play exciting to watch.”
An important element in creating that excitement is Godwin’s casting of six African-American actors in leading and supporting roles, including Harold Perrineau as Lopahkin, a now-rich son of peasants, and Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper as Pischik, the family’s landowning neighbor. “If we want these [classic] plays to reflect our current reality, we have to find a way for them to reflect the population and the people in the audience,” says Godwin, who recently directed the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first black Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu) in a mostly black company. “What’s wonderful is that diverse actors bring diverse resonances and associations to these plays, so they’re no longer held by a particular community; they’re opened up in all their richness.”
Godwin expresses enthusiasm for making his Broadway debut tackling Chekhov with American actors. “Oh, I’m thrilled,” he says with a laugh. “They bring things that will be very different to a British company, and, for me, that is the great joy of this. [In rehearsal] I’ve been touched and impressed by their ability to make this language feel very natural, and by their detailed, emotionally true performances. Americans are also great at comedy, so I’m hoping to bring all those things together to create a sparkling evening.”
As for that iconic orchard, Godwin and his Tony Award–winning set designer Scott Pask aim to tap into the elements that have made the play resonate around the world for more than 100 years. “We’re saying to the audience that this is a timeless, symbolic drama, almost like a dream, so they can experience it not just as a piece of Russian naturalism, but as something much more exciting and new.