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Anna Christie

Sara Surrey and Kevin Tighe in Anna Christie
(Photo © Scott Suchman)
Could Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie be one of the 20th century's first feminist plays? It certainly seems so in Molly Smith's hands, as Arena Stage ends its regular season with the 1922 Pulitzer Prize winner for Best Drama. Smith sacrifices much of the young Swedish immigrant's vulnerability in her staging, which undermines the love story but makes for a rousing, emotionally satisfying demolishing of the old double standard regarding men and women and their pasts. Perhaps to compensate for Anna's new sharpness, Smith mines enough humor from the characters that their rougher edges are softened; the tone of the production occasionally borders on the whimsical, despite all the dense fog roiling around the Kreeger Theater stage.

This is an early O'Neill play and it is fairly straightforward storytelling, without the layers upon layers of psychodrama that make his later works so absorbing. His touch is lighter here, and the play zips along under Smith's forthright direction, the characters immediately grabbing and then holding our interest. Anna (Sara Surrey) is the daughter of widowed Swedish immigrant sailor Chris Christopherson (Kevin Tighe), a slow-witted man who's only truly at ease when at sea. He tries to "protect" his daughter from that "ole devil sea" and the men who sail it by sending her to live with relatives on a Minnesota farm. They don't see each other for 15 years, until Anna sets out in 1919 to find him on the New York docks, where Chris is now captain of a coal barge. Reunited, they seek common ground -- an effort that's threatened when Anna becomes enamored with a strapping, volatile Irishman named Mat (Dan Snook) against her father's wishes.

Anna is afraid to tell her father that she had become a prostitute before escaping to New York, but her secret spills out during the clash of wills between father and daughter. This alienates Mat, who cannot abide the fact that the woman he loves has led a life as textured as his own. The play has what is ostensibly a happy ending, but Smith creates ambivalence in the mood; the voices of the three characters seem just a bit hollow as they look to the future, the shadow of uncertainty clouding their faces despite their smiles over what they hope is to come. In this way, O'Neill's concept that the past is "always the birth of the future" -- as he famously wrote about this play -- is fully realized.

Surrey makes one forget Greta Garbo, who made her "talkie" debut in a 1930 film version of the play following one of the most famous advertising campaigns in cinema history: "Garbo talks!" When she did talk, it was in a heavily accented and husky voice that drenched the character in sorrow and informed several subsequent generations of performances. Surrey eschews a strong accent -- her Anna is a second generation American, after all -- and her voice conveys little sadness. Instead, she displays a tough and snappy arrogance, the tough shell of a woman who has witnessed the seamy side of life and has learned to deflect it. The portrayal is rather one-dimensional, and Surrey doesn't easily shift gears when Anna begins falling in love with Mat, so it's difficult to see how she melts his heart and causes him to want to trade in his seafaring, woman-in-every port life for domestic tranquility. When Mat recoils in disgust over Anna's past, the woman pleads that she has changed, until she realizes that she is being hypocritically judged; Surrey explodes with "How are you any better than I was?" The relationships on the barge are eventually transformed, allowing the power of forgiveness and the promise of salvation to work their healing magic.

Tighe and Snook play their roles broadly to the point where Snook is hissed by audience members in reaction to Mat's sexist attitudes. But there is genuine feeling generated, particularly by Tighe, whose Chris is a gentle, good-intentioned soul. We forgive him his inability to take responsibility as he blames his faults on the sea. With his gnarled voice, Swedish accent, and stooped posture, he is a kindly, white-haired presence. In contrast, Snook is a tightly coiled, testosterone-drenched figure of a man, his Irish brogue slightly over the top.

Set designer Bill C. Ray has created a rough-hewn world for these three and the other wharf denizens; it consists of a wooden platform that is transformed from a dockside bar to a barge with only a few changes, the entire stage bathed in fog and painted in evocative tones by Michael Gilliam's muted lighting. The effect is to soften the stridency that the harsh conflicts between ideals and reality might otherwise engender.


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