nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 8, 2006
I saw Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie when it was last on Broadway—in David Leveaux's production for Roundabout Theatre Company, starring Natasha Richardson, Rip Torn, Anne Meara, and Liam Neeson—and I'm here to tell you that Boomerang's current rendition is better.
A lot better, in fact: director Cailin Heffernan has found the heart of this play in its complicated depiction of a father/daughter relationship rooted in deep misunderstandings, hurts, and fears. She's also anchored it firmly in its time (she's actually moved the action back to "around 1910," roughly a decade before O'Neill wrote it—a period whose social mores and values are in synch with the piece's somewhat crude, if earnest, grasp of psychology). Heffernan's actors and design team conjure the America of a century ago with remarkable success; it sometimes feels as if we're peering through a series of musty old photographs, so faithfully does the production evoke the era.
Anna Christie tells the story of Anna Christopherson, a 20-year-old woman who reunites with her father after not having seen him for about 15 years. Chris, the father, was a ship's bosun who spent most of his time at sea; so scared was he to commit to a steady life on land that he spent almost no time with Anna, her mother, or her brother in their native Sweden. Eventually the fatherless family went to live with cousins on a farm in Minnesota; the mother died (and the brother, mentioned once in the script, apparently went off somewhere too), leaving Anna in the manipulative clutches of strangers who exploited her and finally drove her away. Her escape to the "big city" of St. Paul led her to a still harsher life as she found her way to a "house" (i.e., brothel: I love the way O'Neill and his contemporaries could always find delicate language to talk about life's sad realities) which she left only after coming down with a prolonged illness. Now she's come to find her father, and the only address she has for him is Johnny-the-Priest's saloon, on the New York City waterfront. She thinks he's a janitor when he actually runs a coal barge (on which he lives!); he thinks she's a nurse.
The reunion of these two fundamentally lonely souls defines the play, and also serves as catalyst for its main plot line, which is the love story of Anna and Mat Burke, an Irish stoker washed aboard the coal barge during a violent storm. Mat falls head-over-heels for Anna, whom he assesses as pure and angelic. Eventually comes the time when he wants to marry her and she needs to reveal her background; in a scene that feels remarkably contemporary (O'Neill constantly surprises us with his modernity), Anna explains herself without apology and asserts her independence, if necessary, of both suitor and father. I won't spoil the ending, but the playwright wraps things up without compromising the integrity of a play that must have knocked people out in 1921 with its relentless authenticity and pragmatism.
The play rises and falls on its Anna and Chris, I think, and Boomerang has found exemplary ones in Jennifer Larkin and Dunsten J. Cormack. Larkin, whose growth as an actress has been thrilling to witness during the past several Boomerang seasons, comes into her own as Anna; if she sometimes feels like she's holding back a bit too much in the romantic scenes, she's dazzlingly compelling in this role. She conveys the groundedness that has allowed Anna to survive tough times, as well as a touching naivete that belies what she's gone through yet provides important clues about who this young woman really is. Larkin shines in her big third act speech where she confesses her past to Chris and Mat, bringing a smart matter-of-factness to a monologue that could easily degenerate into melodramatic posturing. She's an Anna to care about and love, and her chemistry with Cormack is excellent.
For his part, Cormack seems to live and breathe the cagey old seaman, finding both the good intentions and the heartbreaking failures of this fellow.
Linda S. Nelson lends capable support in the smaller role of Marthy, Chris's current paramour, who decides to bow out of his life once she's sized up Anna's situation. Strapping, handsome Aidan Redmond, who hails from Ireland, looks the part of Mat, but at the performance reviewed he hadn't quite hit his stride in the role yet—especially in his early scenes, there was a lack of passion and commitment that seemed to make this very simple man more subtle and manipulative than I think O'Neill intended him to be.
The sets by Scott Orlesky are spare and effective, evoking the seedy Fulton Street saloon and the roughhewn world of Chris's barge with economy and grace. Cheryl McCarron's costumes are excellent, setting the piece firmly and invaluably in their period. Lighting by Melanie Smock, sound by Ann Warren, dialect coaching by Amy Stoller, and fight direction by B.H. Barry all contribute to the overall success of the production. Indeed, this Anna Christie is absolutely off-off/indie theatre at its very best, offering a sensitive and insightful look at a classic work that benefits everybody involved, actors, audience members, and other theatre artists alike. I recommend it highly.