Seaworthy O'Neill 

CenterREP's Anna Christie practically reeks of the ocean.

The photo in Arthur and Barbara Gelb's biography O'Neill: Life with Monte Cristo is telling. In 1894 a six-year-old Eugene O'Neill, looking very serious in dark clothes and cap, gazed out to sea as he sketched trees and ships in a book in his lap. As an adult, he said of the photo that it was "amusing and characteristic." Characteristic because he would grow to love the sea, working for a time as a sailor and living above a waterfront bar frequented by seamen, but also because he would devote his adult existence to trying to capture the truth of the world through art.

Truth in art was not necessarily a theatrical priority when O'Neill started writing plays. The Monte Cristo of the Gelbs' title refers to O'Neill's father James, one of the last practitioners of the overblown, "presentational" style of theater that marked the turn of the 20th century. Stanislavsky's work with naturalism in acting had yet to hit American shores; so, too, the work of such modern European playwrights as Strindberg, Ibsen, and Pirandello. The younger O'Neill would spend his life struggling against the melodramatic excesses of his father's theater, and although traces of that tradition would show up in his work, his plays are largely understood as having ushered a new form into American theater. O'Neill, who largely insulated himself from audiences and criticism (he rarely if ever attended one of his plays after the rehearsal period was over), was probably about thirty years ahead of his time, and waiting for audiences to catch up.

Which is why the story of a prostitute who gets a shot at salvation might seem blasé to us, when in fact it was pretty daring territory for 1922, when O'Neill's Anna Christie was first produced. Hookers with hearts of gold were old hat in Europe, but new for us. The story of Anna, who gets a new start when she goes to visit her seafaring father and meets the love of her life in the process, immediately captured the American imagination. Two film versions were released, the second one being famous for the tag line "Garbo Speaks!," as it was Greta Garbo's first talkie. Anna Christie also netted O'Neill (the only American playwright to win a Nobel Prize) his second of four Pulitzers. Anna Christie came early in a densely prolific career that would include Desire Under the Elms, The Iceman Cometh, and Long Day's Journey Into Night, all of which contained strongly autobiographical elements.

Oddly enough, Anna's story originally was completely secondary to the play. In its first version, the play was called Chris Christopherson, and it followed a Swedish sea captain based on a real person O'Neill met when he lived above Jimmy-the-Priest's saloon. Christopherson, like the second draft that followed it (the short-lived That Old Devil Sea), is of a piece with O'Neill's numerous one-act "sea" plays; it features a man who can't escape his connection to the sea. The play saw a very limited run, since the director hacked it down to size without the playwright's help. That may not have been the only problem, however; the published version is incredibly awkward, burdened as it is with exposition and the frayed country mouse/city mouse pairing of old salt Chris and his bright young daughter Anna, here a prim stenographer.

But O'Neill didn't give up on the play. He pulled it into dry dock and changed the focus -- and much of the action -- entirely. Anna went from being an upstanding girl whose strongest curse was "by jiminy" to a hardened woman whose famous first line is "Gimme a whisky -- ginger ale on the side. And don't be stingy, baby." Her love interest went from being the weak-willed Paul Anderson to the hypermasculine Mat Burke. And the tone of the whole work changed in a way upon which no two writers seem to agree -- did it go from being a comedy to a naturalistic drama, or is Anna Christie really one of O'Neill's two extant comedies? Whatever the case, although the sea and her power (Chris constantly refers to the sea as both female and malevolent) still feature prominently in the play, it's no longer the central character. Now, that role falls to Anna, played as both tough and vulnerable by the courageous Delia MacDougall in CenterREP's pitch-perfect production.

O'Neill envisioned Anna as a sort of Valkyrie, large and well-turned of limb, but director Lee Sankowich's choice of the diminutive MacDougall makes Anna seem all the braver, surrounded as she is by hulking longshoremen. MacDougall is part of a powerhouse cast that includes Ken Ruta, Aldo Billingslea, and Pat Parker as Chris Christopherson's salty girlfriend Marthy. Props to Ruta, the Bay Area's ur-Falstaff, for imbuing Chris with a certain sad dignity; no mean feat considering that of all the characters, Chris seems to have changed the least between Chris Christopherson and Anna Christie. The drunken Chris is a figure of fun in the first version with his "py yiminy"s and shuffling gait, but here Ruta gets right both the heavy Swedish accent and the deep sadness (Chris has lost nearly everyone he loved to either the sea or neglect). Ruta's acting of Chris as hunched and hesitant creates a powerful dynamic with Aldo Billingslea's large, virile Mat Burke, leading us to wonder if Mat could also represent Chris as he was when he was younger. Now, there are great differences between the men beyond their physical forms. Chris has "swallowed the anchor" -- a phrase O'Neill liked so much he kept it through all three iterations of the play -- laying the blame for what his life has become squarely on "that ole davil sea." Chris hates the sea but can't stay away from it. As a coal-barge captain he is neither fish nor fowl, a true sailor or a true landsman. A scene that didn't survive from Chris Christopherson had two of his old mates castigating him for having left deep-sea work; they tell him that he isn't a real man and nearly come to blows.

Mat Burke however is a real man, and boy does he know it. The first time he meets Anna he has just saved some of his crewmates from a sinking ship by no more than the force of his great strength and will, a story he tells her in great detail. "You sure do like yourself, doncha?" she asks, with a trace of obvious admiration. This was about where the muscular, feline Billingslea flexed his naked pecs in a move that nearly brought down the house at the matinee I attended. Unlike Chris, Mat has no fear or hatred of the sea. If anything he is her emissary, a true sea-creature like the one Anna is discovering herself to be. As Travis Bogard astutely notes in Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, the problems that arise between Anna and Mat have everything to do with their life on land -- namely, in the form of her past. In their native element, however, there is an ease and rightness to their connection. Even the way Billingslea plays Mat when he is dressed in a proper suit and shoes bears this out. He is too strong and wild a spirit to be contained in such an earthbound outfit.

O'Neill appears to have been a visual thinker, if his stage directions and design suggestions are any clue. It's a tendency given full weight by director Lee Sankowich's design team. Anna Christie is a sensory feast, from Eric Sinkkonen's hyperreal barroom and barge to Kurt Landisman's excellent lighting design (especially the trick of making the beginning and end of each act look like sepia-tone photographs). It's an illusion given more weight by Norman Kern's sounds and Cassandra Carpenter's costumes. The coal-stoker's grime, the lonely sound of foghorns, the way a jacket can make a person look small and overwhelmed; this is a production that virtually reeks of the sea, and neatly frames the small, powerful woman at its center.

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