Conventional wisdom and introductory drama classes describe Anton Chekhov’s final masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard, as a prescient statement about his country’s future, written in 1903 as the playwright was dying. The parallel between the fate of pre-Revolutionary Russia and the fourth-act curtain falling to the sounds of an ax chopping down beautiful but useless cherry trees has been noted by generations of professors and critics.
But Richard Nelson, whose adaptation of Chekhov’s play opens next week in a production by the Huntington Theatre Company, believes otherwise. And his viewpoint is shared by Huntington artistic director Nicholas Martin, who is staging the work, and Kate Burton, the multiple-Tony nominee cast as Madame Ranevskaya, co-owner of a once-grand estate about to be sold for non-payment of the mortgage. “I have a very particular view of the play,” Nelson explains. “What Chekhov sets up is that Ranevskaya’s husband has died of drink; she takes a lover too soon, and her 10-year-old son, Grisha, dies, as if a punishment. She leaves Russia forever for Paris.”
The play begins when Ranevskaya returns to Russia because she’s run out of money and her lover has abandoned her. “Chekhov sets act one in the nursery, the second act in a graveyard near the river, and the third act at a wake. Act four is back in the nursery. The play is about overcoming grief, not guilt, over the loss of her child. The child is completely connected to the cherry orchard. She can’t cut it down because she can’t let go of her son’s memory, but she has to let go in order to go on.”
Martin has taken Nelson’s theory as the theme of his production. “The loss of Grisha is at the center of the play. You can never make a play this great about politics.”
Burton, an Emmy nominee last season for her ongoing role on Grey’s Anatomy , is one of Martin’s A-list divas. She last appeared at the Huntington in Hedda Gabler , which went on to a Broadway run and earned her a Tony nomination. “The big pitfall that people have with The Cherry Orchard is to have everybody weeping and sobbing all the time. You don’t want to play it maudlin; it’s dull to watch. Chekhov had problems with the first production by Moscow Art Theatre. He thought there was too much crying.”
One of the great symbols of the play is the sound of a breaking string, which occurs twice. Burton thinks she knows what it means. “The first time it sounds, it’s about loss and change. The second time it’s about relief. The play is about moving on."
And finally, Martin: “I think Chekhov is the most forgiving of playwrights. He knows who we are and forgives us for it.”
The Cherry Orchard | Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston | January 5–February 4 | $44-$75; $15 student rush + back-row seats | 617.266.0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org