Re-imagining Chekhov with The Orchard and actress Jessica Hecht at NYC’s Baryshnikov Arts Center

Jessica Hecht in The Orchard
Photo credit: Maria Baranova

Jessica Hecht is certainly an entrancing face and voice you recognize for memorable roles in films such as A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and television programs Breaking Bad, Seinfeld and the newly-renewed, HBO Max series Tokyo Vice. Yet, the always-hypnotizing Hecht got her start in theater as “Bianca” in Shakespeare’s Othello for Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company in 1990, and never let go of the weight of the stage. That she chewed up as much scenery as did Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shaloub and Danny Devito during 2017’s Broadway run at Arthur Miller’s The Price automatically puts Hecht in a league of her own.

Starting June 16 (and running through July 3), Hecht goes up against robots and actor-theater owner Mikhail Baryshnikov in a coolly contemporary, deconstructionist adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard – The Orchard – from Ukraine-born writer-director Igor Golyak, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center (450 West 37th Street).

At a time when playwrights such as Aaron Posner re-configure Chekhov works such as The Seagull (into Stupid F%$#g Bird) for the 21st Century, Hecht sees the Russian playwright’s fluid language ripe for remixing in the present day.

“The terms of adapting Chekhov are different than doing so with other playwrights because I don’t know that we got him completely right when we first tried to translate him the first,” says Hecht during a brief rehearsal Orchard break.

“At this moment, because I’m working on this with a Ukrainian director-adapter and with a third of our cast being Russian, we’re looking at real life in more of a raw, unpolished way than many Chekhov productions allow for.”

With Chekhov’s original stories starting as richly expansive before any remix, Hecht sees newer, contemporary writers seeking naturalism, and eschewing stilted-ness as their entry point. “To go with that, Chekhov was an incredible seer of the future in a very supernatural way,” recalls Hecht, pointing to the playwright’s vision of climate change. “There are moments of optimism in his work, but, by and large, he was able to talk about the future that was coming with incredible clarity.”

One aspect of adapting playwright Golyak’s vision of Chehov’s future involves something never-before-witnessed in a production of Cherry Orchard and its central struggle for connection in world facing radical change: robots.

“Our designer is in Moscow, and could not leave, so she designed – with a robotics designer here – a robot that can morph into a tree, or an extra servant, or a bookcase, because Igor is looking at technology as something that has become central to our lives, often painfully so, in The Orchard,” says Hecht.  “His vision of technology is one where we feel distant from one another, as well as taken care of. Golyak is also looking at, quite bluntly, the loss of one’s home, the shocking loss of a place of one’s own.” Hecht says to look for one moment in The Orchard that is a direct comment, from a native son, about the currency of (“a reflection on”) life under wartime in the Ukraine.

To all this, Hecht portrays one of theater’s great characters, Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ranevskaya – a land-owner, part of a dying aristocracy, and the eye of The Orchard’s storm.

To that aged vision of aristocracy, Golyak and Hecht act – literally – as if there is no hierarchical  class structure in their version of Chekvov’s world’s end. “Physically, we are one family,” says the actress. “There is a psychological barrier to accepting certain things about life – that is what makes you an aristocrat here. Being an aristocrat here, means that you can’t accept certain realities. There are all these theater games that one might play when talking about class and status, but Igor was really clear that those symbols are not part of his world. Igor’s Orchard, is, instead, about a mindset.”

Whether bouncing off Orchard co-stars such as Juliet Brett (Fosse/Verdon), Ilia Volok (Mission Impossible) or Baryshnikov (who plays both Anton Chekhov and The Cherry Orchard’s eccentric manservant, Firs), or the likes of Ruffalo, Shaloub and Devito during the run of The Price, Hecht is drawn in by staged theater’s sense of unraveling when it comes to human relationships in the most intimate fashion.

“One can look at the way we get entangled with other people, see themselves in these characters and witness the minutia of our dynamics on stage – our universal troubles…. and joys,” says Hecht. “I emphasize joy beyond trouble because I love to make people laugh in 2022. I’m really always interested in all of that, as well as the pedestrian elements of human emotion and what makes us tick.”