nytheatre.com review by Lucile Scott
November 21, 2008
Like many Eugene O'Neill plays, Anna Christie deals with the illusions that get O'Neill's somewhat wayward characters through the day and what happens when they lose them. But unlike in his more famous works, like The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night—which were written 20-some-odd years after this piece premiered in 1920—the characters find hope in the truth and begin to move forward. The play also focuses on sexism and sexist double standards, which, while less shocking or controversial than they must have been nearly 90 years ago, are still sadly quite relevant.
The production, directed by Robert Kalfin, faithfully sticks to O'Neill's vision and the time period with costume, set, and effects. A large mural of a sunny cloud-dotted sky covering the back wall and two rope nets evoke the sea well.
In the play, Anna Christie decides to travel from the Midwest to the East Coast to find her sailor father, who 15 years before had dropped her off to be raised by the farmer relatives he believed—mistakenly—could give her a better, more decent life. In reality they abused her, both sexually and through overwork, and at 16 she ran away, eventually becoming a prostitute. Her father, Chris Christopherson, and her sailor love interest, Mat Burke, do not want to know the truth about Anna's life and must grapple to see if they can reconcile their ideas of femininity with her reality. And that sets up the basic dichotomies of this play in which the characters often see in black and white but are forced to view gray by curtain. There is East v. West; sea v. land; decent v. not decent; free v. trapped.
Christopherson is a manifestly irresponsible man who abandoned his family for the sea, and blames "that devil sea," as he calls it, for all he has done and not done instead of taking responsibility for his actions. Sam Tsoutsouvas plays him with an almost childlike sweetness, intensified by a Swedish accent and uncertain shuffling movements, that makes the character endearing and sympathetic despite his abandonment and desire not to know the truth or accept blame for the life he has been left with. Roger Clark's Mat Burke is a cocky muscular man's man. He is full of himself and full of life and love, for Anna and for the sea. Jenne Vath has been somewhat miscast as Anna, who the script specifies is 20 years old. Vath is well out of her 20s, causing Anna's youthful scrappiness, sassiness, and approach to love to fall a little flat. Certain scenes drag, despite the competent acting, because some of the drama and stakes rely on the impact of flinging brutal words and situations at someone who is barely an adult.
All three have ended up on a coal barge in the ocean together and all three got there through a combination of choice and lack of choices. Chris views the sea as an evil trap, Anna sees it as cleansing, and Matt as freedom, but no matter what their view of their watery fate, the takeaway seems to be that to better navigate the unpredictable waters all they need is to be there for each other, dichotomies be damned.