Anna Christieby Eugene O’Neill. Directed by David Auburn.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I’d change you to a new woman, entirely."
The Berkshire Theatre Festival’s final main stage production of the season is the second Pulitzer Prize winning play by Eugene O’Neill, "Anna Christie." Produced first as a three act play entitled "Chris Christopherson" and heavily rewritten after a one-week run in Atlantic City in 1919, the four act rewrite presented a very different picture from the first version. Anna, played by a very young Lynn Fontanne in the first incarnation was changed from a proper English lass to a young, fallen woman from Minnesota. O’Neill reluctantly allowed Anna to become his main character moving his favorite "real" man to the side of the stage’s focus for the second edition. He also altered most of the motivating plot elements. What he never did was to truncate the piece by excising too many characters, shortening the acts, or avoiding the central conflict of Chris and his hated oceans.
That, however, is what has been done in the current version on stage in Stockbridge. No one is credited with the edits and rewrites, but they are legion. One might assume that the cuts were made by the director David Auburn but I draw the line at saying so. The only cut not made is altering the title to "Anna Chris" for the tea-and-pepper has certainly been removed from the play. The first act (here the first scene) has been the most drastically cut with so many characters cut including Johnny-the-Priest who owns the bar in which the act is set, the sailors who come and go and drink and rant, the postman who makes a point of introducing the concept of Anna to the play (eight men actually).
Even more radically, the door to the back room and the room itself where women are allowed to sit and drink after being let in by the bartender - one of those critical points about this particular level of society in 1910 - which is how we first should meet Anna. The loss of these elements removes the play from its setting in time and space. Without these things, and in particular with a physical program that give you no idea of where you are and when, the play becomes a simple show about two love triangles and that’s "yust" not enough.
I emphasize the word "yust" for a reason. O’Neill’s leap into realism provided him with the natural choice to write in dialect to get the words out exactly as he wants them heard. Chris’s lines and speeches emphasize the Swedish lilt and the twisted vowel sounds that identify him as Swedish born. The stoker Mat Burke’s Irishness is in part due to the very scripted brogue, lighter than most for the American-born Mat. Anna speaks a reasonably good American dialect with the word "just" being the only word pronounced with a Swedish consonant replacement. O’Neill does this last thing to give Anna a partial identification with her father, but also to emphasize a word that in all its meanings including "reasonable" or "fair" indicates her need to be treated with ample justice and a real interior look at her motivations.
In the first scene we now have Larry the bartender, played with reasonable discretion by Walton Wilson standing aside from the love triangle of Chris and his housemate Marthy Owen and his newly arrived daughter Anna, all of them sitting at a table near the bar instead of in the women’s parlor, separated by a wall and a door from the bar’s actitivy. He can clearly hear every word being spoken and he is far too in the faces of the other three. There is no way they can feel and find the freedom they need to say things to one another that must be said. It artificially removes their options.
Marthy is played to the plausible hilt by the wonderful Alison Fraser who pulls out all the stops giving one of the finest performances of her career in this all too short role. In style she is the most perfect actor in translating the period of the play into visual action. It would have been a much more unreasonable play without her credibility. For someone who only gets to be seen and heard in this opening scene she gives the play to the audience, all wrapped up in a pre-world-war-one bow. Blessings, thanks and a hearty Brava! to Alison Fraser.
The M-C-A triangle of the first scene quickly translates into the C-A-M of the balance of the play as Mat replaces Marthy in vying for the affections of Anna (instead of both women trying to hold onto Chris). With the peripheral characters removed the action devolves onto their heads alone.
Derek Wilson is a lovely choice for Mat Burke, a stoker who is rescued by Chris and Anna from his rowboat after his ship has sunk. The attraction between him and Anna is immediate and though both of them fight it, their passion is much larger than the rooms they inhabit. Wilson is very good even if his accent is a bit thick. He has a natural way with his body and by the end of the play every movement has a meaning all its own. This actor knows how to parlay a crossover from one side of the stage to the other and make each half-step count. His voice, hands and stride exude a certain sexuality and Anna sees and feels it all every time Wilson moves toward her or away from her.
Jonathan Hogan plays Chris very nicely. He has developed the older man into a sympathetic character even though his craziness about the sea and his selfishness about his newly recovered daughter would make him otherwise. Hogan plays the character’s slowed mentality to perfection. Chris is not stupid, but he sometimes needs to absorb facts before he can react to them; and sometimes not, by the way. Hogan understands and puts forth this dichotomy with an ease and a naturalness that is exactly right for the character.
In the most complex portrayal of the evening is Rebecca Brooksher as Anna Christie (Christopherson). Essentially she must play two characters in one body: Anna as herself and Anna as the self she had become in the several years before this play opens. In the course of the time period covered in the show (approximately one month) the two Annas must slowly merge into a new Anna, cleaner and finer but also more resilient and honest. The three faces of Anna are each perfectly realized in Brooksher’s playing. As she begins to understand Chris we can almost smell the affection she is holding back from him. When she falls in love with Mat and finds that dishonesty can’t aid her any longer, she presents us with a colossal choice to be made without advice and without backup. Brooksher does all of this with a cool resolve and a distancing stance. In the third scene, however, she opens up the faucets holding back her emotions and she lets go a torrent of acting that never feels anything else but genuine.
David Auburn’s take on the play is as straightforward and non-melodramatic as possible considering the writing. O’Neill in his early plays was still learning to present a thought in under two thousand words. Auburn’s cuts help drive the play forward, but I missed those lines and characters terribly. Still the applause his actors got at the end of the third scene is justification for the adaptive sensibility here.
R. Michael Miller’s innovative set answers all the needs of this particular production with perfection. Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting was evocative and place perfect. Scott Killian’s brief musical sequences were overwhelming and his sound design, for its atmosphere, gets a score of 100%. Elizabeth Terry needed to be truer to O’Neill’s writing and less to country-of-origin to make the characters’ accents letter perfect. Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes didn’t always do justice to their roles, in particular to Anna in her first scene and her last scene where her clothes should be the making of her, but just weren’t somehow.
You don’t often get the chance to experience the best of early Eugene O’Neill and an opportunity missed would be unfortunate. There is certainly enough here to justify a visit to the Stockbridge campus of the BTG. If you go, though, read the play afterward and find out what O’Neill really wanted you to know. That’s a worthwhile few hours also.
(seen at the first preview)
This should have been a photo of Rebecca Brooksher and Derek Wilson in an embrace, but Abby LePage cut their heads off in the photo offered on the BTG website
Anna Christie plays at the Stockbridge campus of the Berkshire Theatre Group on Rte 7 through August 31. For information and tickets contact the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line at www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.