“It’s so funny,” says Diane Lane, more pensive than actually amused, on being back where she started growing as an actress. Anton Chekhov’s sad human comedy, The Cherry Orchard, returned to Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre September 15, in a Roundabout revival in a new translation by Stephen Karam that is directed by Simon Godwin.
For her, this visit is both a comeback and a post-puberty Broadway debut, and it didn’t come to pass without a little foreshadowing. “I have a dear friend I’ve known since I was nine years old,” she says, “a student of the theatre. He said, ‘You really ought to consider getting The Cherry Orchard mounted.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘What about Madame Ranevskaya—for you?’ I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re thinking, but—oh, I’ll give it some thought.’ Really, I just couldn’t imagine it.
“Then, before you know it, it’s actually happening, and they actually do come to me to play Ranevskaya,” Lane says with authentic amazement. “It’s almost as if my friend was prophetic. So I thought, ‘Well, okay, I’ll walk through these open doors…’”
Lane is, as it turns out, truly to the manor born. She served as a multi-tasking extra in Andrei Serban’s stylized, intensely physicalized 1977 production. “I was a peasant in this scene, a servant in that scene. In the final scene, I was even the ghost of the cherry orchard.
“Back then, I was young enough I could play a boy, which was helpful when I was the ghost of Grisha. That was Mme. Renevskaya’s little boy, who drowned at the age of seven. His tragic death on the property is one of her perceived ‘punishments from God’ for her ‘many sins.’ I played his ghost, walking along the river where he drowned, but, really, it was her memory of him, enacted softly upstage during her monologue.”
Grisha only materialized in Serban’s landmark vision; otherwise, he never got off the printed page. The inestimable Irene Worth, who was 61 at the time, shared that scene with Lane.
Lane’s first stage appearance in New York since that Cherry Orchard occurred only last year when she co-starred with Tony Shalhoub in an original play, Bathsheba Doran’s The Mystery of Love & Sex. Coincidentally, Love & Sex occurred in the same Lincoln Center building where she did 1977’s Cherry Orchard—just a floor below in the Mitzi Newhouse.
Every day she went to work down Memory Lane, seeing ghosts of her teenage self spending her intermissions playing jacks on the floor with the play’s Lopakhin, Raúl Juliá (“That’s what he would do. He was rather amazing. A real mensch! In hindsight, I realize he was quite tolerant of me.”) or standing backstage watching Meryl Streep, even then, be Meryl Streep (“She was in her own play, in the best sense of that phrase. We all just wanted to be in the wings and watch her do it.”) or performing the show during the Big Blackout of ’77 with no electricity, just lit by lighters and flashlights.
The Cherry Orchard wasn’t Lane’s first brush with the classics, she cut her teeth on them. The product of a broken home—her drama-coach dad, Burt Lane, and her singer and centerfold mom, Colleen Farrington, separated when she was 13 days old—Lane found a solid surrogate home when, at six, she answered a call for child actors at La MaMa E.T.C.
The Mama of LaMaMa, Ellen Stewart, and director Serban stepped up to the plate as faux parents. Lane spent the next five years in Serban’s plays—Electra, The Trojan Women, The Good Woman of Szechuan and As You Like It—both in New York and touring theatre festivals around the world.
Other genuine giants in the field contributed to her upbringing, notably composer-director Elizabeth Swados and the Public’s Joseph Papp. She did Runaways for them Off-Broadway and was supposed to do it on Broadway, but instead she ran away to the movies, debuting at age 13—opposite Laurence Olivier, no less—in A Little Romance.
Since Swados composed Runaways on her Off-Broadway cast, Lane got credit for “additional text” when it moved uptown. It was her last Broadway credit until now.
More than 60 movies and television shows kept her away from theatre until 2014 when she starred, rather spectacularly—if the reviews are to be believed—in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth at the Goodman in Chicago. That gave her the courage to return to the New York stage, last spring Off-Broadway in The Mystery of Love & Sex and now on Broadway in a little toy in her attic called The Cherry Orchard.
There’s still some serious talk of her doing Sweet Bird of Youth on Broadway, and Lane encourages the talk, even though it’s well out of her comfort zone and camera range. “The stage always terrified me,” she confesses. “The live audience is just one thing I bewilderingly look back on and say, ‘How did I ever participate in that?’”