“The cherry trees are in flower, but it is chilly in the garden.” This is not a description of Washington during this season’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival, but rather the opening stage directions to Anton Chekhov’s 1904 play “The Cherry Orchard.” The drama deals with a well-to-do Russian family which owns an enormous cherry orchard, but due to the absence and spendthrift ways of Lubov Ranevsky, current owner of the cherry orchard, the orchard seems doomed. Despite a plan which will possibly save the cherry orchard by a seemingly friendly merchant named Lopakhin, the family is too dead set in its ways and estranged from a changing world to take effective action. There is also the suggestion that the short-lived cherry-tree blossoms represent the quick passing of life itself, for “time does go,” says Lopakhin.
While many area high schools present musicals as an extra-curricular activity, Trinity School at Meadow View in Falls Church produces a play as part of its core curriculum. The play is usually based on a close reading and deep discussions of a great work of literature. This year’s production, “The Cherry Orchard,” directed by Trinity teachers Patty Whelpley and James Clancy, was performed this past weekend at Westover Baptist Church by the entire twelfth grade.
Students also write reflection journals as they spend months learning and rehearsing their parts. Gabriel Ortner, who played the merchant Lopakhin as well as choreographed waltzes of his fellow students in the play, said: “In performing ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ we experienced firsthand how awkward Lopakhin’s proposal to save the cherry orchard must have been, how resistant to change the elderly butler Fiers was, and how indecisive landowner Lubov and her brother Gaev were. These insights could never have been gotten [if we had] merely read the play several times and discussed it. Moreover, performing it also gave us a much better sense as to what Russian humor and culture was like in the early nineteen-hundreds.”
In addition to Mr. Ortner’s performance as Lopakhin, Annabel Betoni portrayed cherry orchard owner Lubov, Erik Fagerstrom, her brother Leonid Gaev, and P.J. Coady the butler Fiers. The young actors enacted their roles dynamically, and the hours spent in school working on the play paid off in well-delivered lines. Sets were fairly simple, but the period costumes were finely done, sometimes bordering on ornate; this worked well to highlight the characters and conversations over the staging.
Mrs. Whelpley explains this year’s choice of “The Cherry Orchard:” “We picked ‘The Cherry Orchard’ because it is one of the great classics in Russian drama. Since all twelve-grade students at the school read Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ we knew they would really connect with the Russian characters and the problems with the aristocracy and the emancipation of serfs in the play. We often try to choose the classics that expand upon our curriculum.”
While Chekhov intended “The Cherry Orchard” as a comedy, it is often presented with great seriousness. Indeed, this was so even in Chekhov’s day, to the playwright’s great annoyance. The Trinity production focused on bringing out the humor of the play, often with lines delivered with proper irony or sarcasm. The audience responded well to the humorous approach, which made a play much more approachable which many of us (including this writer) read in school or college in a very serious vein.
The performance of a school play as part of the school’s core curriculum is a very laudable goal— it makes the world of the play come alive for the students as much as for the audience. If “The Cherry Orchard” is any indication, this approach is used with great success at Trinity School at Meadow View in Falls Church. We eagerly await to see what Trinity’s eleventh- and twelfth-grade classes will present next school year.