Sarena Parmar’s new play, The Orchard, deserves to be met on its own quietly compelling terms.
We’re back in the 1970s, in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. And we’re plunged into the very real crisis confronting a Punjabi-Sikh family on the verge of losing their home. Correction: not just their home but also their orchard—and its loss will not 0nly be a material one but an assault on this family’s very identity.
The nominal lynchpin of the family is Loveleen, a bereaved matriarch who fled the country five years previously after the devastating loss of a husband and son. She has now returned on the initiative of daughter Annie who sees her as the final hope for saving a property that is about to be auctioned off. That hope proves futile: whatever money Loraleen once possessed has been squandered.
If we didn’t realize it already, the Shaw Festival’s house program is there to remind us: Sarena Parmar’s play is a reworking of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. But although familiar Chekhovian threads are present—especially that rueful “if only” sensibility that even surfaces in its moments of humor—this is not Chekhov country transplanted to British Columbia. The Orchard is confidently and assuredly a Canadian play—a mosaic of culture and attitude, remembrance and loss, with its own vivid sense of time and place.
The astute direction of Ravi Jain and the responsive work of the cast are major factors in the success of this offering—superior in every way to the Shaw’s dreadful revival of the actual Chekhov play nearly a decade ago. In bringing The Orchard to the stage of the Jackie Maxwell Theatre, Jain is sensitive to the sensibility of Parmar’s script—a script that perhaps shows a greater faith in human resilience and interdependence than Chekhov did.
Purists may protest at the liberties being taken, but in truth, this sort of thing has been happening to Chekhov for decades. The Cherry Orchard provides particularly fertile soil. A much-admired Bengali version substituted jackfruit for cherries. A 1982 adaptation dealt with the effect of Margaret Thatcher’s draconian economic policies on a beleaguered Welsh community. In 1950 Helen Hayes portrayed a Madame Ranevskaya who presided over a 19th Century slave plantation. And in 1973, Joe Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival mounted the play with an all-black cast in protest against their exclusion from the classical repertory.
The culture that Papp was denouncing 45 years ago is less with us today. Both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals can testify to that. And a play like The Orchard shows how enriching these changes to our theatrical culture can be.
Playwright Sarena Parmar is in her second season as a member of the Shaw acting company and was a memorable presence in last year’s revival of Brian Friel’s Irish classic, Dancing At Lughnasa. Her family emigrated to the Okanagan from India in 1967 and eventually came to own an orchard. She’s driven by her own history, and in a note in the printed program, she says she wanted to write about a Canada on the threshold of multiculturalism, about a dream of assimilation that’s not as real as one might expect it to be. So The Orchard is full of outsiders—not just the members of the immigrant Basran family, but also indigenous peoples and Japanese Canadians still bearing the scars of wartime internment. Yet what also emerges here is a sense of community in which the so-called outsiders are part of the fabric in spite of everything. It’s not necessarily a comfortable community. The members of the Basran family and their immediate friends can be discordant and quarrelsome. Radicalism vies with conservatism. Anger can erupt. When daughter Annie, beautifully portrayed by Parmar herself, suddenly turns on her mother—“I was here rotting and you forgot me!”—the bitterness is palpable.
Yet a serene acceptance of the processes of living, a tolerance for the misdeeds of others, also ripples throughout the play. Take this neighboring white farmer, played with rough-hewn likeability by Neil Barclay: even though an unfortunate lapse reveals his prejudices and innate sense of privilege, he still considers himself their friend, and so do they.
Then there is Jeff Meadows, superb as Michael, the wealthy landowner who has a solution to the family’s financial crisis—allow most of the orchard to be chopped down, convert it into a park for recreational vehicles, and they’ll be in clover. His later actions prove self-serving and immensely damaging. And does his friendship with the family endure? Perhaps. This is a play accepting of imperfections in others—and that is part of its richness.
That richness extends throughout a gallery of fine performance. The Orchard emerges as the type of firmly crafted ensemble piece that is full of sinewy interconnections. And again and again the characterizations are detailed and fully realized. Among the stand-outs: David Adams, serene in his stoicism as an aging father; Pamela Sinha as Loveleen, reduced to passivity and lethargy by sorrows past and present; Shawn Ahmed, seething with moral passion as he states the case for a return to India; Sanjay Talwar as the brother forced to compromise with the tenets of his faith; Jani Lauzon, exuding quiet fortitude and the wisdom of time as the indigenous Charlie
There’s no parallel here to the original’s quietly devastating climax which sees the tottering old family servant abandoned and alone as the trees are being chopped down. Parmar’s version has too much generosity to end on that kind of note.
(The Orchard continues to September 1. Further information at shawfest.com or 1 800 511 7429)
This article originally appeared in Capital Critics’ Circle on June 28, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.
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This post was written by Jamie Portman.
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