SO, A COUPLE of Academy Award nominees are teaming up to do Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” Big deal, right? You can’t swing a rolled-up Playbill in New York’s theater district without hitting some big-time movie or TV star taking a huge pay cut to hit the boards. (Paging Bradley “Elephant Man” Cooper!)
But when David Strathairn (nominated for “Good Night, and Good Luck”) and Mary McDonnell (“Dances With Wolves,” “Passion Fish”) hit the stage Feb. 11, they will be, according to Mapquest, exactly 114.72 miles southwest of Times Square, at People’s Light & Theatre Company, in Malvern.
That two such august performers agreed to spend most of the winter in Chester County is the result of stars (figuratively and literally) aligning, as well as patience, luck and timing.
There were “so many wonderful routes and pathways that kind of led to the alchemy of all this happening now,” offered Zak Berkman, PLTC’s producing director, who jokingly described himself as the project’s “midwife.”
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Berkman and Abigail Adams, the company’s artistic director and CEO (she is also directing “The Cherry Orchard”), emphasized that their casting of the two top-shelf actors was not a publicity stunt.
“Getting well-known people would be irrelevant to us,” insisted Adams. “It’s these particular people that are really important. And that’s true of any guests we have here. We always hope it will be the beginning of a long-term relationship, and that their values are shared with our values.”
The People’s Light honchos wanted to work again with Strathairn – he did “Nathan the Wise,” in 2009, and “Sally’s Gone, She Left Her Name,” in 2000, at the theater – and with McDonnell, whom they’ve both known for many years. They’ve also had a longtime hankering to stage Chekhov’s classic piece about an aristocratic Russian woman, Lubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya, and her family trying to save their estate.
“It’s a play we’ve wanted to do for years, but I felt we did not have a Lubov, and I didn’t want to do it until we had the Lubov,” said Adams, referring to McDonnell’s character. “And Mary was, to me, the best possible choice. So, when that began to emerge as a possibility, there were more and more conversations.”
According to Adams and Berkman, the process began in Los Angeles in 2011, when they had dinner with McDonnell. Strathairn was their choice to play Leonid Andreyevich Gaev, Lubov’s brother. But things had to be put on hold until the actors’ schedules allowed them to put aside the required nine weeks.
“I keep joking, there were many hail Mary passes going along that got caught to make this possible,” said Berkman. “We tried to assemble this [last year]. It almost happened but crumbled apart.”
One major issue has been McDonnell’s “day job” as the star of TNT’s “Major Crimes,” on which she portrays Los Angeles Police Captain Sharon Raydor. But she promised Adams and Berkman last year that this winter would work for her.
It’s easy to assess the value to PLTC of having two stars of this caliber perform there. But to hear McDonnell and Strathairn tell it, they’re the ones reaping most of the benefits.
“Why come to Malvern?” asked Strathairn, putting the emphasis on the town name’s second syllable. “Why go to off-Broadway when you can come to Malvern? It’s a place where the development of new and reinvestigation of old dramatic pieces is done in a special way.
“Sure, the nuts and bolts of putting together a production are pretty much the same wherever you go, but it’s the whole aesthetic here that I respond to. To be able to come here is really kind of a privilege, and to be fit into a company that has [survived and thrived for 40 years] is a challenge.”
He added that, in his estimation, the quality of work done by People’s Light is “relatively even” with that of New York productions.
For McDonnell, who spent five years of her childhood living in nearby King of Prussia, PLTC was a perfect place to get back to live performing after 17 years in film and television.
“I’ve been out of [theater] for so long that [it’s a] privilege to step into a company that has synergy and history, support and an environment that is beautiful,” she said. “It doesn’t have the trappings of some of what might be burdensome in New York.
“So you come here and you’re immediately at work with people who trust each other, know each other and have a skill set that supports the exploration immediately. There’s none of that getting to know each other and figuring out who’s on top. The power stuff – it just doesn’t happen.
“So, for me it was like being given support instantly that I frankly needed to reenter the world of theater.”
Another plus, added Strathairn, is simply that Malvern is not New York, which means critical response isn’t really an issue.
“The community here is very forgiving, because this is their theater. They love this place,” he said.
“So, maybe the razor’s edge of criticism doesn’t come as sharply upon productions here. But because of that, there is an allowance here for exploration. It may not be as dangerous, the ice may not be as thin, but you may not be so susceptible to criticism that can make or break you.”