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Arguably Eugene O’Neill’s quintessential early play, Anna Christie grapples with alcoholism, alienation, heartbreak, mortality and the monolithic sea, all experiences drawn from the playwright’s own past. The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s new production of the 1922 Pulitzer Prize-winner teams Steppenwolf Theatre co-founder Jeff Perry (Scandal) with daughter Zoe Perry (Cotton) and Kevin McKidd (Grey’s Anatomy) in a thoughtful and physical new interpretation.
Set design by Wilson Chin is minimalist, a rectangular platform bordered by water signifying the deck of a coal barge owned by sailor Chris Christopherson (Perry). Here, between sleeping and working, he drinks to forget his misspent, loveless past. The opening scene takes place in a dive bar, Johnny the Priest’s, (one of O’Neill’s real-life haunts), featuring a pair of bistro tables, a few chairs and a curtain of fog. The bleating of sound designer Martin Gutfeldt’s plaintive alto sax and an occasional foghorn are the only noises, and black is the predominant tone.
The opening scenes pair Christopherson with Marthy Owen (Mary Mara), a fellow alcoholic and sometime bedmate. In the exposition-heavy early going, Mara is outstanding, and when you consider early drafts of the play focused on Christopherson (the original title was Chris), it’s easy to see where her character would have had a much larger place in the story. But in time, the focus shifts to Anna, Christopherson’s long-lost daughter who comes seeking refuge, relegating Owen to the dramatic purpose of colorful sounding board and admonition to the broken-down young lady.
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Separated from her father for 20 years, Anna has come from Minnesota where she was in a state hospital after feigning illness to avoid prison time. While Christopherson sailed the seas, his wife passed away and young Anna was sent to live on a farm with cousins where she was sexually abused. From there she ran away to become a nanny in St. Paul. There are gaps in Anna’s story, but of course they will be filled in the third act.
Adapting the Swedish accent specified in O’Neill’s notes, Mr. Perry is a forcible anchor to the play, bringing Shakespearean dimension to Christopherson, but at the same time making it a two-hander between himself and his daughter. What could easily be perceived as a simple instance of Hollywood nepotism is, in fact, not, as Ms. Perry has earned her stripes starring with mother Laurie Metcalf on Broadway in The Other Place, for which she received excellent notices. As Anna, she adapts a Minnesota accent, shunning the Swedish and making a logical choice that serves to widen the gap between herself and her father, and later Mat Burke (McKidd), an Irish shipwreck victim who miraculously washes up on deck.
“Dat ole devil the sea” is how Christopherson refers to the place that spit Burke out. He blames it for taking from him everything he’s ever held dear, including Anna, and will be damned if he’ll watch his daughter make the same mistake her mother did in marrying a sailor. Burke is a brutish, simple man, passionate and quick to anger, an O’Neill trope fully fleshed out later in The Hairy Ape. Under Kim Rubinstein’s direction, McKidd brings a raw energy that perfectly complements Mr. Perry’s futile bluster and Ms. Perry’s suppressed rage (she’s been victimized by men all her life). While she makes Anna’s pain palpable, the character’s sweet vulnerability (along with the empathy it implies) somehow eludes Ms. Perry, who nevertheless delivers a forceful performance.
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O’Neill established himself in his Broadway debut, Beyond the Horizon, which won him his first Pulitzer a year before Anna Christie. He continued the wave with the immensely popular Emperor Jones, and by 1921 there were great expectations surrounding his next play. Although it was hailed as a candid look at hardship facing many young women at the time, Anna Christie is at heart a well-crafted Victorian throwback. And the notion of a fallen woman redeemed by the love of a good man is a full retreat from the pistol shot fired by Ibsen when Nora walked out on Torvald 42 years before.
Ultimately an upbeat tale of redemption featuring one of O’Neill’s uncharacteristically (and forced) happy endings, Anna Christie received critical acclaim and box office success during its initial run at the Vanderbilt Theatre, and its somber gleam is presented intact in the current revival. Rubinstein and her cast wisely avoid gender politics, artistic or political agendas, and focus on O’Neill’s strength as a writer — multi-dimensional characters all stumbling blindly toward the graveyard.
Cast: Jeff Perry, Zoe Perry, Martin Gutfeldt, Mary Mara, Kevin McKidd, Tait Ruppert
Director: Kim Rubinstein
Playwright: Eugene O’Neill
Set designer: Wilson Chin
Costume designer: Raquel Barreto
Lighting designer: Michael Gend
Sound designer: Martin Gutfeldt
Presented by Beth Hogan, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
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