ANNA CHRISTIE

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                                                                                                                                                                Photo: Maria Baranova

By Eugene O’Neill

Directed by Peter Richards

Received wisdom has it that Eugene O’Neill’s earlier plays, with their stylized speech and melodramatic plots, are less worthy of revival than say, LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT or A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN. It is true that O’Neill found his voice and divulged more of his personal angst in his later work. That doesn’t mean, however, that his earlier pieces should be dismissed as mere batting practice.  Pulitzer Prize-winning ANNA CHRISTIE, with its flinty, independent female protagonist and blunt portrayal of the tribulations immigrant life, seems in some ways less dated than the playwright’s more introspective later musings. On the page, ANNA language is decidedly strange. Much of it is written in dialect, with ethnic inflections spelled out phonetically (“Ay’m fool sailor fallar. My voman–Anna’s mother–she gat tired vait all time Sveden for me”). When spoken by the right actors, though, these eccentric word clusters actually have an authentic ring to them. Getting the music right is essential.  And in  Working Barn Productions’ lively revival, director Peter Richards and a gifted cast rise admirably to the challenge.

Swedish-born Chris Christopherson (Stephen D’Ambrose) spends his days piloting a coal-barge, and his nights nipping whisky at a waterfront bar owned by Johnny-the-Priest (Scott Aiello). Also on hand is Marthy Owen (Tina Johnson), a kind of drinking-buddy-with -benefits, with whom Chris sometimes spends the evening when he’s ashore.  Chris’s routine is disrupted when word arrives by mail that Anna, the old Swede’s long lost daughter, will soon be arriving in New York. Years ago, when Chris was a sailor, he sent Anna away to live with relatives on a farm in the Midwest. Here, he assumed, Anna would have a healthy upbringing. His vision of a wholesome, respectable young lady is inconsistent with the tall blonde (Therese Plaehn) who half struts, half staggers into the bar. Adult Anna can drink with the best of them and, after looking dowdy Marthy up and down, declares “You’re me forty years from now”. Anna joins Chris on a sea voyage, which enables her to temporarily forget her past. Her reverie doesn’t last long. A nearby shipwreck propels Irish seafarer Mat Burke (Ben Chase) onto the barge, and he falls in love with Anna at first sight. Chris, who has always tried to protect Anna from “dat ole davil sea”, doesn’t see the sailor as worthy of his daughter’s attention. But parental disapproval is the least of Anna’s worries. To make a fresh start with Mat, she’ll have to come clean about what really happened during her adolescence on the farm, and the compromises she had to make in the lean years that followed.

In addition to embodying the vernacular poetry of O’Neill’s language, the actors capture the human, often comically, contradictory traits of characters’ personalities. D’Ambrose’s Chris is both worldly and naïve, Plaehn’s vibrant Anna shows the scars of a hardscrabble life along with the angelic purity that causes Mat to mistake her for a mermaid. The show’s impressive production values also help to deepen the mood and advance the story. Moria Sine Clinton’s costumes and Emily Naylor’s props reflect the built-to-last dauntless of the Early 20th Century strivers they serve.  Scott Bolman’s muted lights and David M. Barber’s Whistleresque set design evoke a maritime world in which both danger and deliverance might lie in wait in the foggy distance.

ANNA CHRISTIE continues through December 17, 2016 at the Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd St, New York, NY 10009. Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/621/1480568400000

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POISON

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Written by Lot Vekemans

Translated by Rina Vergano

Directed by Erwin Maas

From the moment the lights go up on Jian Jung’s spare set, POISON establishes both its minimalist aesthetic and its central metaphor. She (Birgit Huppuch), and He (Michael Laurence), are adrift in a world of empty spaces. They only have each other to turn to for answers, and the distance between them, forged by years apart, will not be easy to bridge. They were once a couple, a pretty happy one it seems, until the death of their young son Jacob drove a wedge between them. Now, after ten years apart, She feels the need to make contact. Ostensibly her urgency comes from the fact that the cemetery where Jacob is buried is threatened by new construction in the area. Chemical runoffs could toxify the soil, and his body may have to be moved.

The concern over the polluted ground turns out to be something of a red herring. What really needs to be disinterred is the unresolved pain She keeps buried deep inside her psyche. Though plenty of time has elapsed, closure remains unattainable. He, it turns out, has been able “put a period on” his grieving process. He has remarried and is starting a new family in France. At first, She’s resentful of his newfound happiness. She feels that, as a man, He can’t possibly have experienced the same sense of loss as a mother who witnessed her own child’s death. In time, though, her bitterness is replaced by curiosity. She wants to know how He got through it all, and his surprising revelations help her to find her own way of making peace with the past.

Playwright Lot Vekemans takes a refreshingly straightforward approach to the two hander form. Unlike some recent examples of the genre (Nick Payne’s CONSTELLATIONS, Phillip Ridley’s TENDER NAPALM, etc.) POISON doesn’t feature any formal pyrotechnics. The only non-naturalistic element is the ethereal voice of a countertenor Jordan Rutter, who stands in the aisles singing haunting selections from Richard Strauss’s “Morgen” between the scenes. Thankfully, the play is also free of showy catharses. Instead the story unfolds at a gentle, recognizably human pace. Outbursts of emotion erupt, then subside, arguments dissolve into laughter and tenderness. Huppuch and Laurence are affectingly real as a couple whose shared tragedy – the very thing that drove a wedge between them – now binds them together. Erwin Maas directs with a delicate touch.

POISON continues through December 11, 2016 at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan For tickets, call 800-447-7400 or visit http://www.origintheatre.org