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The Orange Grove

By Laura Hitchcock

Something's gotta be important, sometime!
Tom Jacobson's play is described as a comedy. That's true only in the sense that his observation of what's happening in the physical and spiritual worlds makes him scream with cosmic laughter.

He's made a site-specific adaptation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard to the small Lutheran church in Los Angeles of which he is a member. Although the sight lines for those in the back pews are flawed, the use director Jessica Kubzansky has made of the small church is fluid, dramatic and stingingly alive. Even the slamming of doors when actors exit or enter echoes Chekhov's symbolic chopping down cherry trees as a theme of destruction and departure.

Pastor (Kevin Crowley), in a nod to Madame Ranevsky, returns from Paris and thinks nothing of generously handing out alms from the church's shrinking funds to the homeless Simon (Joshua Wolf Coleman), who hangs around the church which has become home and family and is finally labeled caretaker by Pastor. Filthy and in rags, Simon is a pain to almost everyone, though kindly Veronica (Bonita Friedericy) does her best to smooth things over. Veronica, who has cancer, is the conscience of the play, at once perceptive and humane.

Choir director Peter (Tom Beyer), who is also the accompanist, opens the show with a choir rehearsal. Though the voices range from the trained soprano of beautiful aspiring performer Yolanda Olafson (Emily Kosloski) to the serviceable enthusiasm of volunteer singers, the hymns themselves are delivered in beautiful harmony. Simon's one redeeming feature in Yolanda's eyes is his tenor voice which offsets his irritating doglike devotion.

Larry Yoshitoshi (Peter James Smith), the counterpart of Chekhov's self-made merchant Lopakhin, is the son of the Japanese farmer who owned the orange grove before World War II. A bright energetic entrepreneur, he's elected President of the congregation in hopes that hope he'll restore the depleted Church attendance. But Larry's solution is to merge the church with another small one and sell the property for the million-plus the land is now worth.

The Lutheran church's German roots are embodied in old Gustafina Liedtke, widow of the former pastor, played at this performance by Mary Cobb, with a steadfastness that doesn't lose her chances to project the humor evoked by this character. The play's most dynamic characters, both in writing and performance, are the homeless Simon, portrayed with fury and yearning by Joshua Wolf Coleman, and Larry, drawn with a passion for change that doesn't conceal his obsession for justice by Peter James Smith. Emily Kosloski's beauty and pure silvery soprano offset Yolanda's prima donna self-absorption but Jacobson has made Yolanda much more than the usual caricature, giving her childhood memories of confirmation, impatience with her lover Larry and a desire for that holy city, Paris. Bonita Friedericy grounds Veronica, making her not only the play's conscience but its heart. Tom Beyer, also the skilled music director, plays Peter, the choir director, with artistic passion. Don Oscar Smith plays Norbert, whose love of repairing the old church is equal to Peter's passion for his made-to-order pipe organ, with zealous frustration. Rebecca Metz makes Lottie, bookkeeper and funeral singer, a character without whom no church story would be complete.

Although the play's ending mirrors Chekhov, Jacobson has made this work very much his own. He has a Chekhovian way with characters, giving them unexpected depths and facets, but he has expanded Chekhov's story to paint a picture of the values of the church, the freedom when they are removed and the loss of what they espouse

Playwright: Tom Jacobson
Director: Jessica Kubzansky
Cast: Tom Beyer (Peter Turner/Musical Director), Bonita Friedericy (Veronica Richards), Joshua Wolf Coleman (Simon Carpenter), Don Oscar Smith (Norbert Branmoe), Rebecca Metz (Lottie Berman), Peter James Smith (Larry Yoshitoshi) Mary Cobb (Gustafina Liedtke 1/21-2/6), Patricia Place (Gustafina Liedtke 2/11-2/20), Kevin Crowley (Pastor), Emily Kosloski (Yolanda Olafson).
Costume/Set Design: Barbara Lempel
Lighting Design: Kathi O'Donohue
Sound Design: Veronica Vorel
Running Time: Two and a half hours with a ten-minute intermission
Running Dates: January 14-February 20, 2005.
Where: Lutheran Church of the Master, 10931 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, Reservations: (213) 485-1631
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on January 22.
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