Taking Nantucket To Chekhov
World Premiere of New "Cherry Orchard" Onstage Now
In 2004, while working on his dissertation for a PhD in Russian History, Greg Stroud first recognized what would become the basis for his new translation and adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s "The Cherry Orchard". He was living in an old, half-converted dairy barn in Polpis and noted that one day soon the house would be gone—replaced by one that would “look a lot like our neighbors’.” He realized, “‘The Cherry Orchard’ is all about Nantucket.”
Though he would not begin work on the project for years, the parallels between the island and Chekhov’s classic tale of an aristocratic family, their property, and its inevitable fall to oncoming development were clear then. Stroud does not, however, side with either preservationist or developer—which he argues is true to Chekhov’s original intent. “It’s not meant to condemn it or to embrace it, but it is meant to think about it and to maybe to come to terms with it. Because if you live on the island, what’s the point? You could be angry all the time, but then why live on Nantucket?”
After earning his PhD from the University of Illinois in 2006, Stroud joined the faculty of Bennington College as a professor of History where he often provided dramaturgical guidance to student productions of Chekhov. There he observed a disconnect between the players and the material. “People didn’t really get it.” He saw too much “people sitting around and musing and nothing happens,” and thought, “that’s not Chekhov at all!”
Stroud’s plan to update Chekhov for a contemporary audience coalesced in early 2011 over drinks with theater friends and colleagues at The Starlight Theater and Cafe. “The point of the adaptation, the translation was not to take Chekhov to Nantucket, but it was to take Nantucket to Chekhov . . . Chekhov is brilliant. I’m not half the writer he is, but I think I understand how to make it clear. I think I understand what makes Chekhov special.” He began work that Spring.
“There are two things that make 'The Cherry Orchard' distant or difficult to understand," he says. "One is that it’s set in 1904 in Russia. 1904 Russia has all kinds of assumptions that even Russians nowadays don’t get." The other is just how fun Chekhov can be. “I think the other thing we miss is that this culture in 1904 is very much a Victorian culture. So for them at the time, the play was fairly bawdy. Chekhov is fairly bawdy and my general feeling of how Chekhov is done in America now is not bawdy.”
When “The Cherry Orchard” premiered at The Moscow Art Theatre in 1904, Russian audiences understood the characters and narrative before the curtain even rose. “All the characters are stock characters,” Stroud explains. “When a Russian audience comes into this play in 1904 they know they story, they know the characters. More than a hundred years later, audiences have none of the same cultural assumptions.”
Moving the story to 1972 Nantucket allows Stroud to make recognizable to contemporary audiences those same characters. “When an American audience hears [the name] Simeonov-Pishchik it means nothing to them, right? But if in our case, they hear Winthrop Lodge, it’s obvious to them.” Simeonov-Pishchik would have sounded equally obvious to Russian audiences a century ago.
“Luckily, Nantucket has many of the same types. The roles are at least composites of people we’re all familiar with. We walk down the street and we can see the newly wealthy developers, many of them born on the island. We can see the old money—the old WASPs—sometimes that seem particularly sympathetic as dinosaurs, but the reality is sometimes not quite so much so. We see the houses themselves. This sort of tragedy: the family house—what to do with it? Tearing it down or preserving? And what does it even mean to preserve? This is what we experience every day on Nantucket . Those sort of stock quandaries, and the families losing their money. It’s all there. It’s familiar.”
Working from the original Russian text, Stroud set about moving these characters and their story to 1972 Nantucket. “You see those bumper stickers that say ‘Gut Fish Not Houses' and those kind of conversations. It’s all about that. Whenever you arrived—whether you were born here or whether your family summered here. Whether you came in the ‘70s or just came five years ago, it’s meant to be a little fable about the island and maybe an enjoyable way to think about it.”
The ‘70s are when many of Stroud’s friends first came to the island. He offers, “It’’s sort of a love letter to them.” This love letter took over a year to write. Amidst such an enormous undertaking, a fully-staged production seemed unimaginable. “We thought ‘nah it will never happen.’ Then, to their credit, the Theatre Workshop of Nantucket—John Shea and Gabrielle Gould—got on board and have been really supportive.”
“The play is not about houses, it’s not about money, it’s not really even about love.” Stroud holds. “It’s about people and how life presents us with problems and not with solutions. And sometimes the solutions are mutually contradictory when they exist. And that we all die. And that everything comes to an end—the houses, the people. I think Chekhov loves people. And for the island, that’s the reason to be on Nantucket. It’s not because of the houses. It’s because of the people.”
Co-directed by Stroud and Anne Breeding, Stroud’s translation and adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” made its world premiere at the Theatre Workshop of Nantucket on September 14 featuring Townsend Ambrecht, Kaitlyn Burke, Katie Croyle, Sarah Fraunfelder, Asa Jean, John Knox Johnson, Chapin Klein, David McCandless, Susan McGinnis*, Sarah Nabulsi, Eric Schultz*, and Sandy Spencer*. It runs through October 6.
*Member, Actors' Equity Association
Cherry Orchard poster by Robin Breeding
Greg Stroud portrait by Jenn Libby