Tom Jacobson obviously insists on giving himself a brand new narrative challenge to overcome with each of his plays. Whether the work is spoken entirely in Rabelaisian couplets, written as a chronological palindrome, or, as with this piece, fashioned so that several characters speak at once, Jacobson is never easy on himself or his art. This crafty adaptation of The Cherry Orchard is also site-specific, performed in the church that inspired it—where Jacobson has been a member for 20 years. As Chekhov exposed the demise of Russian aristocracy, Jacobson chronicles the diminishment of organized religion in general and, bravely, his own congregation in particular.
Luckily his sweetly simple yet richly complex new work is in the exceptionally capable hands of director Jessica Kubzansky, who in many ways is equally challenged here. Not only do characters engage in different conversations simultaneously, they do so in a space where acoustics are an issue, topped only by the fact that the sightlines are those of a church, not a theatre. The back pews, perfect for a Sunday morning catnap unseen by the pastor and congregants, are not the ideal spot from which to watch a play. Kubzansky compensates by keeping the movement continuously fluid, bringing scenes to the back of the house and into the balcony.
The work of this remarkable cast is a testament to fine ensemble playing. As the cast's occasionally warring voices blend harmoniously in the church choir, so does the flowing of these disparate personalities in and out of one another's lives create theatrical ambrosia. And, as outstanding as is every cast member, special praise must to given to the astonishing performance of Mary Cobb. What Jacobson and Kubzansky have wrought in collaboration with this cast is extraordinary. If this play is done elsewhere in the future, however, it could never have the heart it reveals in this space, for nowhere else would it be such a resounding tribute to the opening minds of less conservative mainline religious organizations.
"The Orange Grove," presented by Playwrights Arena in association with and at the Lutheran Church of the Master, 10931 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. Fri.-Sat. 8 pm, Sun. 7 pm. Jan. 22-Feb. 20. $15-20. (213) 485-1631.