What is The Cherry Orchard? In 1903, Anton Chekhov responded vehemently to Stanislavski’s directorial interpretation of the play as a tragedy, asserting that, “what has emerged from me is not a drama but a comedy – in certain places, even a farce.” Certainly, The Cherry Orchard (Chekhov’s final play), begins with tragic potential: Madame Ranevsky, still distraught at the drowning of her young son five years earlier, is brought home to Russia after a suicide attempt in Paris. Yet, in his characters’ extraordinary (often class-based) psychological inabilities to get what they want – to preserve their romantic relationships, or to hold on to the titular orchard that has always been in the Ranevsky family – Chekhov also saw a source of sardonic amusement for his audiences (Stanislavsky didn’t get the joke: he countered, “No, for an ordinary person this is a tragedy”).

Both arguments have merit, but Mehmet Ergen’s new production at the Arcola Theatre swings back and forth between the two positions, going beyond either Chekhov or Stanislavksi, and playing too often to extremes. While Chekhov does include some selective use of pratfalls in his stage directions, as, respectively, Pischick and Epikhodov, Jim Bywater and Simon Scardifield both rely far too heavily on slapstick, which tends to undermine the complex humanity that the playwright awards to even his silliest of characters (these could otherwise be quite moving performances). On the other side of the spectrum, there’s quite a bit of caterwauling and overplayed, sometimes superimposed, melodrama. A scene demonstrating Madame Ranevsky’s thoughtlessness, in which she gives a gold coin to a drunken beggar, takes on an entirely different meaning in this production since the stranger here wields a knife.

Whether or not the playwright would agree, The Cherry Orchard works best somewhere in the softly tragic middle, in that greyer space where the most powerful emotions lie beneath the surface, in the expressions of passion that will never be spoken and in the life-sustaining hopes that slowly fade, flame-like, in almost all of Chekhov’s characters. This production realizes that in-between space most potently in the final painful exchange between Ranevsky’s adopted daughter Varya (the generally excellent Jade Williams) and her would-be suitor Lopakhin (Jude Akuwudike, stronger in such quiet moments as these than in his outsize bluster elsewhere). Little is said aloud here, but currents of sorrow and desire rush between them in the silences.

Ergen’s cast is sturdy, but the characters often feel detached from one another: they listen attentively but rarely react or make eye contact, lending a rather segmented presentational feel to the proceedings (at times, the disconnect can make the choppy dialogue, in an English version by Trevor Griffiths, seem closer to Albee than Chekhov). Abhin Galeya stands out in a stirring performance as the revolutionary student Trofimov while Robin Hooper, as the senile butler Firs, is served particularly well by the production’s most absurdist urges. In the central role of Madame Ranevsky, Siân Thomas often exemplifies the production’s seesaw style, swaying between girlish glee and weepiness, but she is nonetheless deeply moving in her overwhelming longing for her former lover who is ill in Paris.

While the contemporary costumes clash with the explicitly historical moment of the play, Iona McLeish has designed a striking set piece that dominates the stage: an empty white bookcase out of which enormous white branches grow. A simple but powerful illustration of how deeply the orchard is rooted in the life of the family, the bookcase-tree transforms the space effortlessly from the nursery of the house to the outdoors. Much like The Cherry Orchard itself, it is shape-shifting and un-nameable but glows with the hushed promise of the wonder that one day may come.

The Cherry Orchard is playing at the Arcola Theatre until March 25.

Photo: Robert Workman