Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Characterization is the center of Chekhov's work. The pivotal events of the play seem inevitable – and take place offstage. As the Chekhov translator Paul Schmidt says, Chekhov "cut[s] away the melodramatic moments of the 'plot,' or shifts them offstage, leaving finally only his characters' helpless, unheeding responses to those moments" (source: Schmidt, Paul. "Introduction." The Plays of Anton Chekhov. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997. p. 4).
No character in The Cherry Orchard is safe from Chekhov's gentle satire. With his doctor's fine powers of observation, he depicts each person's charms and weaknesses. There's not a character (except Yasha, the opportunistic parasite) with whom Chekhov doesn't seem to sympathize, so much so that when it comes to determining the protagonist, we have a few options (see "Character Roles"). Lubov is vivacious, beautiful, and generous – but she's also a self-centered and foolish, making poor decisions hurt others. We understand Lopakhin's difficult childhood as a motive for his accumulation of wealth, but boy does he make some insensitive moves. Trofimov's idealism is appealing, but his youthful arrogance isn't. He gets his comeuppance in Act 3, humiliated by the anxious Lubov. By combining virtues and flaws in each character, Chekhov achieves an affectionate distance that we in the audience share.