Published in KPBS On Air Magazine April 1997
A distant sound is heard. It seems to come from the sky, the sound of a snapping string mournfully dying away. Then all is silent once again, and nothing is heard but the sound of the axe on a tree far away in the orchard.
These are the last lines of the last play written by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. “The Cherry Orchard” opened in Moscow on January 17, 1904, on the playwright’s 44th birthday, only six months before his death.
Analytical books and essays have focused on the breaking string. What has made it, like the play itself, resonate for almost a century?
“It’s like a broken heart,” says director Tom Moore. “The old order was passing in Russia. Today, a whole other order is passing. That’s what’s so amazing about Chekhov. It’s just a continuing cycle. Long after we’re gone — now I’m beginning to sound like a Chekhovian character — there’ll be a whole other change. The wheel will keep turning.”
“The Cherry Orchard” was first on the list of plays Moore was interested in directing at the La Jolla Playhouse. He’d been talking with Artistic Director Des McAnuff for years, but schedules and seasons interfered. And then finally, it all came together. The Playhouse was ready for “The Cherry Orchard,” Moore was available, and Lynn Redgrave signed on to play the leading role of Ranevskaya. It all happened so fast that McAnuff was forced to postpone his direction of “Twelfth Night” and put “The Cherry Orchard” in as the season opener.
“Everyone,” says the impish Moore, sipping from a can of diet soda, “will be expecting some topical, political take on the play. But I’ve always shied away from distorting a production to make a point. I think this piece makes lots of points, and it speaks very much to what’s happening now in the Soviet Union, with perestroika and all. Everything is changing once again.
“I’ve seen productions of this play where they forced it to perceive the oncoming revolution. Well, Chekhov didn’t perceive the oncoming revolution. He just knew that his world could exist no longer, and it was going to become another world… Chekhov is brilliant in his subtlety because he doesn’t make judgments. There’s no enemy. There’s no one that’s in the wrong here. It’s just the poor human condition and how people deal with it.
“People pull away from the play what they need,” muses Moore, leaning back in a huge desk chair at the La Jolla Playhouse offices. “The more profound the piece of work, the more possibilities for people to take with them… It’s a story about people facing loss, and finding a way to survive. It’s about the fragility of life itself, and the fragility of any sort of physical possession. And it’s about adapting and changing in the face of reality.”
Tom Moore’s own reality has had a great deal to do with change. He’s flip-flopped between stage, screen and television. Just as he’s about to leave one medium behind, he gets snagged back.
In 1971, for example, at the moment he had decided to flee the stage and become a filmmaker, he was hooked into “Grease,” which became the second longest running show in the history of Broadway. During the musical’s eight years in New York, Moore gave a break to an impressive list of stars-to-be, such as Richard Gere, John Travolta, Treat Williams, Patrick Swayze. He continued directing on and off Broadway for awhile, as well as in regional theater, including San Diego’s Old Globe (“The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Fallen Angels”).
A Tony nomination rewarded his direction of “‘Night, Mother,” which he then took to the screen. He became a fellow at the American Film Institute, and then he leapt into television, directing episodes of “thirtysomething,” “L.A. Law,” and “The Wonder Years,” among others.
How does he juggle it all?
“I quote a line from “‘Night, Mother” a lot,” he says with a wink. ‘”Things happen, and then you see what happens next.’ That’s it in a nutshell.”
Moore seems to move from passion to passion. Perhaps what excites him most about doing Chekhov (he thinks “The Three Sisters” he directed at A.C.T. in San Francisco is the best thing he’s ever done) is that it “helps you find out what’s going on in your life… Things going great? Do Chekhov, and that’s what it’ll be about. A lot of tragedy in your life? Then that’s what it’ll be about.”
So what will Tom Moore’s “Cherry Orchard” be about?
“Well, my life is in a very good state,” he confesses, “but I’m in flux about what to do professionally, in terms of television, film or theater. At the same time, I’ve had a fair number of losses. It’s just your usual run of life. I look forward to seeing all this in the piece… If we do it right, it’s going to be an incredibly rich tapestry of experience.”
“The Cherry Orchard” runs from May 13 through June 17 at the La Jolla Playhouse.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.