Father and Daughter Jeff Perry and Zoe Perry Tackle Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie

The 1922 Pulitzer Prize winner comes to life at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles.

One of the more vivid theatrical memories of 2013 was watching actors Laurie Metcalf and Zoe Perry go head-to-head as a neurologist with memory issues and the woman who may or may not be her daughter in Sharr White's Broadway thriller The Other Place. Textually, the play already packed a wallop; the fact that Metcalf and Perry are mother and daughter in real life made the work's emotionally raw climax even more gut-wrenching.

Perry is now having a go at acting opposite her dad (Metcalf's ex-husband), Jeff Perry, a Steppenwolf Theatre Company cofounder whose credits include Broadway's August: Osage County and, currently, the role of Presidential Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene on ABC's Scandal. Together, they star in the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble production of Eugene O'Neill's 1922 Pulitzer-winning drama Anna Christie in Los Angeles. Jeff plays Chris, a coal-barge captain who rediscovers his daughter Anna (Zoe), a reformed prostitute whom he abandoned years earlier. It's a tough play, one that at the very end finds both of them transformed. But getting to that point of transformation started with a jealous father and a lesser-known O'Neill work that beckoned from the bookshelves.

Zoe Perry as Anna and Jeff Perry as Chris in Odyssey Theatre Ensemble's production of Anna Christie by Eugene O'Neill.
Zoe Perry as Anna and Jeff Perry as Chris in Odyssey Theatre Ensemble's production of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, directed by Kim Rubinstein.
(© Anna McMillan)

Tell me about your involvement with Anna Christie. Was this a bucket-list role for the two of you?
Jeff Perry: Zoe and I didn't know this play, isn't that right, honey?

Zoe Perry: Not until we read it together.

Jeff: Zoe and I had been looking for a play. It felt mutual, but full disclosure: I bawled my eyes out watching Laurie and Zoe in The Other Place. And then jealousy took over. I said, "Zoe, no, not just your mother, me too." I was looking in the bookshelf, had never read Anna Christie, and said, "I think there's a father-daughter in there." We were both pretty enthralled.

How did this production come together, since you were a package deal?
Jeff: I met Kim Rubenstein, the director, fifteen years ago. She's a fellow Chicago theater buddy. I was looking for a really versatile director and teacher for Steppenwolf summer school. I've been a big fan and we've gotten to co-teach at a lot of venues over the years.

Zoe: About ten years ago, I met her when I was an undergrad at Northwestern, and I fell in love with her there. So when we were first discussing doing something together here in L.A., it was just a given that we'd like to involve Kim. I don't know that any of us had actually worked on an O'Neill play, besides being fans.

Jeff: We were all freshman O'Neill students in a way. I'd been a fan of Long Day's Journey [Into Night] from high school on.

Zoe: I got to see my mom do Long Day's Journey in London, which was really beautiful.

Given that Laurie had conquered the O'Neill beast already in one of his toughest plays, did she have any helpful hints for the two of you?
Zoe: You know, not really. My mom is—

Jeff: Anti-analytic, in a way.

Zoe: Well, she is just an acting steam train, but, like, at the same time she's so funny and wacky. So when people would ask her how taxing Long Day's Journey was, she's like, "It's not, really." She'd be playing Bananagrams backstage before her entrance. [laughs] She's maybe not your typical source for what kind of tax the role takes on you. She always gives her all and that work was so beautiful and moving.

Zoe Perry and Jeff Perry star in Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, directed by Kim Rubinstein, at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble.
Zoe Perry and Jeff Perry star in Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, directed by Kim Rubinstein, at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble.
(© David Gordon; ABC TV)

Is it easier or harder to do a play like Anna Christie, which involves a fraught father-daughter relationship, with actual family members?
Zoe: I think there's definitely a shorthand that we have. Our relationship lends an interesting layer to other people watching it, and I guess also is a facet of what was happening in the final scene of The Other Place. It's loaded. On my end, I'm very grateful for a given level of support, and understanding, and trust between us. That makes everything easy and fun and probably speeds up what that process work would be.

Jeff: I'd say the same thing. I'm completely biased, gushingly proud in admiration with all the fatherly things. Simultaneously, I just love good actors, and bias aside, I love watching Zoe tackle these different parts. This one is particularly fraught and really challenging. It's kind of the way I grew up at Steppenwolf. Watching each other wrestle with great material is encouraging. It makes you want to throw down better and dig deeper. Exactly the kind of environment you want.

Would you like to take the production elsewhere after the Los Angeles run?
Jeff: I would love to. I would love to share this more. You can have done five plays, or four hundred, but you kind of know when…With this story, this director, this chemistry, the appropriateness of the parts, the love of the process and getting along like crazy, all of those things don't happen simultaneously that often. That communication and that chemistry are really playing for the audience. I want to share it on every level.

Zoe: I totally agree. This play itself I have found so moving to work on. Anecdotally, I hear a lot of people say they didn't know this particular O'Neill play. I didn't. It's so topical. There's something very prescient about it. The message behind it is so important, the way that these characters come together and try to understand each other beyond the superficial and the selfish. There's something that's very transformative in this piece and speaks to a contemporary audience. It would be really cool just to introduce it to people.