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:

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