Jan. 14, 2002
By Madeleine Shaner – Hollywood Reporter
Through March 10
Eugene O’Neill’s atmospheric “Anna Christie” reflects much of the playwright’s early life, when he roistered and roundered as a sailor ruled by the tides. Chris Christopherson (William Lithgow), the play’s crusty protagonist, is a legend in his own time, as respectful and fearful of the sea as he is of women. Having long ago abandoned real life, he now works the New York Sound as skipper of a coal barge. Between drinks, he retains remnants of Old World civility and a distant memory of a different life, a home, a wife and a baby daughter. When Chris’ daughter, Anna (Lesley Fera), now a sick, defeated waterfront tramp, comes back into his life after 15 years, he still sees her as the sweet innocent he’s fantasized through the bottom of a glass. Returning to lif e aboard the coal barge, Anna begins to shed her sordid past to become her father’s fantasy, which doesn’t take into account a dashing, young shipwrecked sailor, Mat Burke (Matt McKenzie), whom Chris saves from the sea. The play might be remembered as a morality tale from 1930s Hollywood, with Greta Garbo in her first speaking role, Charles Bickford and Marie Dressler as Chris’ waterfront wife.
The “ole devil sea” is the major antagonist here, blamed by the skipper for all that’s wrong in his life, and there are more words than action in the
old-fashioned story, with its sins and virtues all capitalized, making it hard to re-create in a more sophisticated age. Director Gar Campbell breathes fresh air and contemporaneity into the eternal scuffle between parent and child and the ties that bind the human soul to its karma, aided in no small part by exceptional performances. Lithgow is beyond amazing as the old skipper, hard and soft at the same time, free-spirited and bedeviled, far-seeing and blind. Fera gleams like switched-on neon — sultry, sad and luminescent, an innocent witch, powerful and helpless, epitomizing modern womanhood. McKenzie is a force majeure, as dangerous as he is irresistible. Bonnie Bowers as Marthy, Chris’ port in a storm, is a rotund delight, managing, amazingly, to chug-a-lug gallons of stage beer in a single draft. Small criticism, however, of the accents — Lithgow’s Swedish and McKenzie’s Irish are maybe too authentic, making for hard hearing.
Four short acts make this seem like a long play, hampered by two bulky scene changes. While its results are totally realistic and superbly styled, Victoria Profitt and David Dionisio’s set — which has three total changes, from waterfront bar to deck of the barge to the cabin of the barge — could be
simplified to obviate the major manhandling that requires two long intermissions. Nevertheless, atmosphere is what lingers in the mind, and that’s what O’Neill is all about.