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There’s an expectant hush as the lights come up on The Cherry Orchard at the Round House Theatre—one last instant of quiet before the arrival of the family that will surrender its beloved trees and country estate to a new order it cannot bring itself to acknowledge. It’s just time enough for the audience to take in Tony Cisek’s magnificent ruin of a set.

A forest of shattered arches thrusts upward from bleached wood flooring, pitched forward at a steep rake. This architectural wreckage is the very essence of dilapidation—an expressionist portrait of decay, in which crooked staircases meet busted floorboards at crazy angles and every edge is either worn or broken away. Neglect at the hands of the play’s doomed Russian aristocracy has clearly taken its toll on the building. But it’s hard to escape the notion that the designer is also conjuring more ominous images. Cisek has said in interviews that he was inspired by pictures of the World Trade Center wreckage, but the vision he’s created is open-ended enough to suggest other tragedies as well. String a bit of barbed wire between the disconnected columns and they’d look an awful lot like gulag fenceposts. As if to reinforce that notion, a train whistle wails faintly in the distance.

But happily, the frenetic activity that then erupts isn’t so much panic as thrilled anticipation. The household springs eagerly to life, servants scurrying to flood long-dark rooms with light and plunging down stairways in a headlong rush to be the first to greet the homecoming entourage of Mme. Ranevskaya (Kathryn Kelley). An accident-prone clerk (Peter J. Mendez) and a maid (Susan Lynskey) with whom he’s unrequitedly in love narrowly avoid collision as they dash off to grab suitcases, and an ancient valet (Emery Battis) steps this way and that a bit more quickly than he probably should, to avoid being trampled by a sudden crush of humanity, hats, coats, and valises.

The bustle is, we’ll soon see, as desperate as it is lively, but for the moment, it’s simply joyous. Sentence fragments slip out in breathless little gasps as David Mamet’s adaptation injects carefully crafted phrases into the scattered rhythms of everyday conversation. Chekhov’s language has rarely seemed so fluid a mix of the commonplace and the poetic, or sounded so bemused at the comedy of life. “He worships me, and then he bumps into a chair,” says the maid of her clumsy clerk, summing up her dilemma, and the playwright’s view of hapless humanity, in a single sentence.

Nick Olcott’s staging is so richly comic in its opening moments that we scarcely notice how cleverly he’s laying the groundwork for the wistful sighs that will come later. The hangers-on are always funny, of course—not just the low-comedy lesser servants, but the neighbor (a blustering Bill Largess) who’s forever begging for handouts, the earnest student (Karl Miller) who loves Ranevskaya’s spunky daughter (Megan Anderson) but can’t admit it, and the woman (Sarah Marshall) whose prime function is to do magic tricks. And in Olcott’s mounting, the principals are no less amusing than their court jesters. Ranevskaya and her brother (Rick Foucheux) have perfected a little routine that makes them appear willfully idiotic, nattering on about furniture and the weather when they ought to be paying attention to the deal that could help them ward off the auction of their precious orchard. Their dodges are so neatly managed—distracted glances that lead first to airy waves, and then to drifting out of a room—it almost seems they don’t hear Marty Lodge’s dogged, intelligently coarse Lopakhin as he struggles to get through to them.

But it’s not—as in some productions—that his plan is down-to-earth and they’re so flighty that they just can’t grasp it. It’s that they’ve decided, very nearly on a conscious level, that grasping it would be a surrender every bit as unpalatable as giving up their estate. Told that she can continue to live her extravagant life if she’ll just put cottages where her orchard is, Kelley’s Ranevskaya murmurs a knowing, not remotely plaintive “Without my orchard, what is my life?” This is a family that thinks accepting a practical solution, however sensible, will make them indistinguishable from the mercantile folks—Lopakhin included—to whom they’ve always felt superior. (Interestingly, Ranevskaya is perfectly capable of practicality where love is concerned, hounding Lopakhin into proposing to her maid with nearly the same fervor he brings to his broadsides about her orchard.) Alas, in Chekhov’s world, self-image is the only currency with purchasing power, so they dither and dodge, and let everything slip away.

And when the slipping is done, they affect not to notice. Lopakhin turns to worrying about the cost of the vodka he’s drinking as the axes sound in the orchard, and his dejected lady love (Crystal Fox) and all the aristocrats simply whirl away to the railway station, leaving the stage to the servants who make their life possible—pointedly leaving them on the crooked stairs, amid the broken columns, barefoot, cold, helpless, and still worried that their masters might have forgotten to wear their overcoats.

Which brings me back to Cisek’s remarkable set design—the first to tame what has previously seemed an impossibly broad, deep playing area at the Round House company’s new Bethesda home. He hasn’t quite managed to make the 400-seat playhouse feel intimate, but he’s made it feel significantly less cavernous. The devices the designer uses are as simple as they are effective. He narrows the stage opening slightly with black-cloth-covered panels at the sides, pushes the whole show forward onto the stage apron (where Nancy Schertler’s lighting is helpful in creating discrete rooms without walls), and, to counteract the shallow incline in the auditorium, elevates the stage floor and tips it steeply forward.

It helps, obviously, that Olcott was willing to eschew trees and parlorfuls of furniture for that forest of broken arches. Narrowing the stage and playing on the thrust can both become company strategies, but a steep rake probably won’t work for a more naturalistic show. Still, it sure does for this one. You’ll want to see how well. CP