A century-old drama finds fresh meaning and receptive audiences in the farmland of southern Minnesota.
Tom Ersland's family farm is always in his head. When his aged parents die, Ersland must decide what to do with the land he grew up on, just south of Kenyon. Rent? Sell? Move there and work the farm?
His situation is not unique, nor is it new. More than 100 years ago, Anton Chekhov wrote "The Cherry Orchard" about Russian aristocrats who lose their country estate. Chekhov examines how land becomes part of family identity. "Without the cherry orchard, my life makes no sense," cries the owner, Lyubov Ranevskaya.
Ersland, a high school speech teacher, recently played Lyubov's brother in a "Cherry Orchard" production brought to Kenyon by Twin Cities actors Luverne Seifert and Darcey Engen. This summer they are staging the play in historic homes in five Minnesota towns, recruiting local actors along the way.
The rolling tour -- underwritten by Minnesota's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund -- brings to farm communities a classic play that resonates with the modern-day reality of land being bid up because of high commodity prices and aggressive agribusiness.
"We could have done this project in Minneapolis, but a big mission for us is to offer art to people who normally can't attend theater," Seifert said.
Good fit for Legacy funds
Seifert, a longtime actor with Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the Guthrie and Ten Thousand Things, grew up in the southern Minnesota community of Sleepy Eye, about 85 miles west of Kenyon. His uncle still owns the family farm.
He is married to Engen, head of the theater department at Augsburg College. Last summer they test-drove this project at the Historic Lind House in New Ulm, not far from Seifert's family farmstead.
"It seemed as though everyone I ran into that week in New Ulm was talking and raving about the 'Cherry Orchard' project," said Trudy Beranek, executive director of the Lind House Association. "The only negative thing was that so many people who wanted to see it could not get tickets."
The response emboldened Seifert and Engen to expand their horizons. They applied for an arts touring grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and received $60,000 to cover most of their $78,000 budget. They need to make up the rest through ticket sales.
"One of the things I saw in this grant application was the commitment from the communities," said Sue Gens, executive director of the arts board. "They do workshops with local actors and they live in the community while they're doing the show."
The "Cherry Orchard" project was one of 42 arts touring grantees that received a total of $1.9 million from the Cultural Heritage Fund in 2012.
"We're hearing that communities are very glad to have visiting artists," Gens said.
The tour started in Kenyon. This weekend it's at the Musser mansion in Little Falls. Still to come are Blue Earth, Worthington and Taylors Falls. Seifert and Engen did local workshops in April to fill out the 14-person cast, which includes six professional actors: Sarah Agnew, Elise Langer, Stephen Cartmell and Dario Tangelson, along with Seifert and Engen.
"Local people are hungry to develop their skills," said Engen. "They are good artists."
Casey Baumgartner and Luke Davidson are high schoolers from Kenyon who joined in the production. Davidson attends the Perpich Center for the Arts in Golden Valley and hopes to pursue a career in musical theater. Baumgartner will be a junior this fall at Kenyon-Wanamingo High School.
Julianna Skluzacek, artistic director of the Merlin Players in Faribault, was having a burger and fries with three other community actors at Papa's Kenyon Family Restaurant on the afternoon that "The Cherry Orchard" opened at the Historic Martin T. Gunderson House. Rehearsals had gone fine, she said, except for the day a neighbor heard a loud argument on the house's lawn and called police. It was, the actors explained, part of the play.
Kenyon "is a farm community with real love of the arts," Skluzacek said. Local costumer Collette Flom, for example, helped Engen and Seifert.
Kenyon musicians Ray and Sue Sands (of the Polkadots) signaled the start of the show as they ambled onto the Gunderson porch and began to play their accordions. Actors dressed as servants greeted audience members with hugs and cups of cold water.
"Does anyone want to pass this around?" asked Langer, holding up insect repellent.
In the distance, Agnew's character was roaring around with a lawnmower and she eventually circled the small canopy set up for the 30-person audience. As the action jelled, Lyubov, played by Engen, ran up from the street. The play then alternated between the living room and the lawn.
Randy Hockinson, who directed Davidson and Baumgartner in plays at Kenyon-Wanamingo, stopped by to see his young students.
"They really told the story with a lot of energy and involvement," he said.
Jon Noyd drove down from Inver Grove Heights.
"I'd like to come back," he said. "It's too bad, though, that it's not spring and there aren't cherry trees around."
Don Langworthy, from Northfield, said Chekhov is a favorite and he was curious to see how the adaptation worked. He loved the production's farcical sense.
"It worked without diminishing the story," he said.
"I bid 90,000 rubles on top of the arrears, and I got it. The cherry orchard is mine now!"
With those ecstatic words, the wealthy entrepreneur Lopakhin (played by Seifert) tells Lyubov that he has bought the estate.
That exclamation resonates throughout the rural Midwest.
Doug Nopar, a community organizer with the Land Stewardship Project office in Lewiston, Minn., wrote a one-act play called "Look Who's Knockin'," about a retired farmer trying to decide whether to sell to a rich neighbor who will work the land with row crops, or take a lesser offer from young farmers who would practice conservation.
"We hear about it all the time," said Nopar. "When these farmers get into their 80s, the family has to decide. If there aren't any children who want to farm, the allure of taking top dollar is very strong."
In "The Cherry Orchard," Lopakhin intends to cut down the cherry trees, subdivide the land and build cottages.
"When did Chekhov write that play?" Nopar asked, amused by the relevance.
Engen said she feels the project is a perfect example of what the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund was created for.
"It helps educate," she said. "If we are not working toward an educated people who can think in a reflective way, then what are we working for?"
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299