Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie resides at the crossroads where sweet laughter and bitter tears intersect. Throughout the play, droll, whimsical moments are followed by desperate, solemn speeches, and characters spit vile words of disgust soon after professing unending devotion. Even the author held a dichotomous view of the work -- repeatedly rewriting it in a labor of love, O’Neill eventually came to hate the piece, going so far as to publicly disown the play after he felt it was misinterpreted by critics and audiences.
While technically a comedy, Anna Christie is better described as an uncertain tragedy, one where the outcome is forever in doubt. In the play, 20-year-old Anna Christopherson travels to New York City to meet her father Chris for the first time in 15 years. Anna soon meets and falls in love with a young man, Burke, but spurns his offer of marriage. When pressured for an explanation, Anna strips away all pretensions and reveals to both men her past as a prostitute. Immediately scorned, she is later uneasily reunited with them when she receives Burke’s forgiveness and her father’s acceptance.
Despite some initial unsteadiness, the Gallery Players presented the 1922 Pulitzer winner with confidence, sustaining its waves of emotion and keeping the four-act play consistently absorbing. Director Laura Josepher leaned toward the optimistic, disregarding O’Neill’s assertion that the play was about momentary contentment rather than continuing happiness. Her choice was nevertheless successful, and her direction helped move the two-and-a-half hours at a brisk yet unhurried pace.
As Anna, Caroline Strong was skilled at hitting her character’s high notes, though somewhat less sure of the low ones. When Anna reveals her past in a scene of intense passion and resentment, Strong delivered the speech with aplomb, chillingly displaying a woman both enraged and afraid. Yet in the play’s beginning, when Anna arrives and "sinks wearily in a chair" with a youthful face "already hard and cynical beneath its layer of make-up," Strong conveyed only limited evidence of an unhealthy young woman crushed by the weight of the world. As her father, Dale Fuller needed a scene to settle into a Swedish accent, but after finding a rhythm, his Chris exhibited fine timing and vivid characterization. As Burke, William Peden’s timing was also sharp, and his range between starry-eyed romantic and enraged drunk impressive.
Kaori Akazawa’s set design -- a bar and backroom for the first scene, the exterior stern of a barge for the second, and the interior of the barge for the third and fourth -- was marvelous. Full yet uncluttered, Akazawa’s well-conceived design, aided by the equally impressive lighting by Aaron Mason, added immeasurably to the mood of the play.
Anna Christie challenges both performer and viewer to experience a wide range of emotions. Equal parts tearjerker and comedy, it explores the areas between honesty and falsehood, between forgiveness and condemnation, between who we were and who we want to be. By tackling the play, the Gallery Players proved that they too could venture into ambitious territory, and lead an audience to a night of impressive theater.
(Also featuring Frank Irwin, Michael Edmund, Christopher Murray, Trey Teufel, Doug Halsey, and Gael Schaefer.)
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Copyright 2001 Ken Jaworowski