‘Life’s gone by’

Robert Falls steps down as artistic director of the Goodman Theatre with aptly chosen “The Cherry Orchard.”

Francis Guinan (from left) Kate Fry and Christopher Donahue in “The Cherry Orchard” at the Goodman Theatre.

Francis Guinan (from left) Kate Fry and Christopher Donahue in “The Cherry Orchard” at the Goodman Theatre.

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.

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“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.

Robert Falls and his wife, Kat, at a dinner in his honor Monday night at the Goodman Theatre, which is naming a rehearsal space after its longtime artistic director.

Robert Falls and his wife, Kat, at a dinner in his honor Monday night at the Goodman Theatre, which is naming a rehearsal space after its longtime artistic director.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Why return? For a last champagne-fueled prance across the stage of life? To gaze in boggled loss at the trappings of their vanished youth? To clutch at themselves and despair in the manner of nearly everybody in a Chekhov play? Yes.

The aristocrats are idiots, naturally, all permanent children — “Now I’m like a little girl again!” exudes Lyubov, reveling in the old nursery where the play unfolds. All except the lone actual child, teenage Anya, who offers clear-eyed commentary on her mother.

“She’d already sold the summer home in Monte Carlo, and she had nothing left, nothing. ... We barely made it home. And mama still doesn’t understand.”

In her mother’s defense, it’s a hard lesson. The party’s over, and it’s time for you to go — as financial ruin only hastens what time does to us all anyway. There is a sliver of hope, as level-headed Lopakhin keeps pointing out for most of the play. The new railroad runs right by; they can cut down the cherry orchard, subdivide it into lots, and build summer cottages that will be snapped up by the bulging middle class.

Lyubov can’t even grasp that plan, no matter how plainly stated.

“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” she says.

Financial distress is hard to accept, and the ledgers are right there. Even harder is when the music you’re playing just isn’t what people are dancing to anymore. The aristocrats keep telling themselves they have a future, but of course they don’t. They have a rich past and a fleeting present. That’s it.

Kareem Bandealy (left) and Kate Fry portray a former serf and a ruined aristocrat in “The Cherry Orchard,” at the Goodman Theatre.

Kareem Bandealy (left) and Kate Fry portray a former serf and a ruined aristocrat in “The Cherry Orchard,” the last play directed by Robert Falls as artistic director of the Goodman Theatre. The play runs through the end of April.

Liz Lauren/Goodman Theatre

The future is Lopakhin, the true star of the play. He is the most fully formed character, whose father and grandfather were serfs on the estate, unable to even step into the kitchen. That was then. Now he’s the richest of them all, and stands in for the entire ascendant, formerly oppressed class. He knows who he is and what he overcame and wants everyone else to know too.

“You think you’re one of them,” he chides a servant “You have to remember where you came from.”

Easier for some than others.

“The Cherry Orchard” plays at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, through April 30.

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