As my companion and I took our seats for this production, he confided. "I don't really like O'Neill." That sentiment is surprisingly common in and out of theatrical circles, yet the playwright's oeuvre is produced and attended faithfully. Why? It clearly has tremendous appeal for actors; the manic-depressive turns taken by O'Neill's characters, frequently within one scene, offer a myriad of emotions to be played. But even die-hard acolytes should admit that O'Neill's Ahab-like quest for plurality of emotion, dialect, and experience pushes some of his human panoplies toward melodrama and caricature.
Anna Christie was spurned by its creator but eventually embraced by the public despite its rough edges, and this more or less mirrors the situation of the play's title character. Sent to a Minnesota farm by her father as a child following her mother's death, Anna returns to New York at age 20 for a reunion with her dad, a Swedish-born seaman named Chris Christopherson. Having sent a letter to announce herself, she arrives to find Chris in a bar, a stranger to her but still quick to warn his platinum-blonde, adult daughter against the seafaring life that her family has lived for generations. Soon after their awkward meeting, tough-talking Anna lets her father know that farm life with her cousins was far from idyllic: "I had to slave for all of 'em. I was only a poor relation, and they treated me worse than they dare treat a hired girl."
O'Neill's use of refrain to add texture to a character or weight to a theme (the "pipe dream" motif in The Iceman Cometh, for example) is heard here in Chris's constant ejaculations against "dat ole davil sea!" -- a phrase that recurs, at my companion's count, more than 10 times. Playing the broadest of written Swedish dialects with admirable finesse ("Ay bet you she's fine, good, strong gel, pooty like hell!"), Dale Fuller as old Chris benefits from director Mary Catherine Burke's wise decision to employ a dialogue coach to work with the cast. In the Roundabout Theater revival of Anna Christie 10 years ago, Rip Torn's struggles with this role reportedly provided unintentional humor in a play that sometimes strains to be taken seriously as either comedy or drama.
To the credit of this co-presentation of Cold Productions and The Storm Theater, the director and cast do nice work in pulling the life out of the play's dialects and tirades. Caroline Strong's Anna, seen last fall in a production by the Gallery Players in Brooklyn, is a fierce, heart-rending and heart-rent woman who can yet amuse us with her rough-trade patois ("I'm a dead stranger in this burg"). With her father, she shares a rapport that is laudable. Then, as if the dialect conference were too small with only two participants, Mat Burke stumbles onstage midway through Act II with an Irish brogue big enough to straddle two continents, and our family drama becomes a romantic comedy.
Played with rough-edged enthusiasm and, to be fair, a reasonably restrained accent by William Peden (who also was seen in the Brooklyn production with Fuller), Mat Burke is a sea-weary steamship stoker. Immediately taken with Anna after being washed ashore as the sole survivor of a storm, he alternates between brutishness and tenderness, at times within the same sentence: "Though it's a great jackass I am to be mistaking you, even in anger, for the like of them cows on the waterfront."
Having regaled us with young Mat's struggle in the tempest, O'Neill goes on to pit his Irish Ferdinand (Mat) against his Swedish Prospero (old Chris) for the loyalty of a wise-guy Miranda (Anna), until a modern jolt comes along to shock us all. It turns out that Anna's independence in Minnesota was achieved in a less than honorable profession. This news shatters Mat and, to a lesser degree, Chris. After lengthy displays of grief, some of which are genuinely moving and effectively reduce our distance from the drama, everything works out well in the end -- so well that many of the play's first critics branded the denouement "bogus."
Given that the intervening years have not been kind to this pat ending, and given O'Neill's own renunciation of the play, the question is: Why Anna Christie now? O'Neill was as driven as Whitman to contain multitudes and embrace diversity, striving to paint the widest possible canvas of American experience. Yet, rather than carrying the explosive charge of The Iceman Cometh or the implosive weight of Long Day's Journey, Anna Christie seems to betray the frayed edges of O'Neill's social portraiture. Unlike Whitman, the playwright's multitudes speak in various dialects that sound, in our age of identity politics, a bit strained and forced.
Between the two, O'Neill is the darker writer, and closer to our time. Now that we are collectively reacquainting ourselves with what it is to be American -- an always-open question -- perhaps a subversive view is helpful. Though the comprehensive ambition of both scribes can seem quaint to us at a time when diversity is an issue dealt with daily by security screeners, O'Neill confronted the double-edged nature of the American proposition more bluntly than Whitman. So it seems reasonable now to listen to O'Neill as one of the first American writers who attempted to sing the various songs of ourselves -- even at their most alien, comical, awkward, and desolate.
It must be said that the whole of Anna Christie belongs to Anna. Even O'Neill couldn't bend this play toward the male characters, though he tried. The title role ranks behind only Blanche DuBois (and, perhaps, Albee's Martha) among American female stage personae. Interestingly, Anna is never as autonomous an individual as her Ibsen precedents, Nora and Hedda -- but then, America was at that time and still is behind Ibsen's Norway in many aspects of its treatment of women.
In the present production of Anna Christie, Asaki Oda's sets do their best to define playing areas in a large space that might otherwise swallow the show whole. Come to think of it, that's not an inappropriate image: O'Neill was always partly an American Virgil, leading us through his particular brand of Hell. And, as Yank says in The Hairy Ape: "Hell, sure, dat's my fav'rite climate." If one enters the Studio Theater on West 46th Street with a few caveats in mind, one will emerge from Anna Christie entertained, moved, amused, and enlightened by a fine production of a classic American playwright's prodigal work.