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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
Her mother dead and her father, Chris (Dale Fuller), a man of the sea, Anna (Caroline Strong) was dispatched as a young child to live, unhappily as it turns out, with relatives on a Minnesota farm. Fifteen years have passed when we meet her, showing up in New York to reconnect with her salty old dad, a Swedish immigrant with seafaring in his genes. Yet he despises the "ole davil sea" and, pleased as he is to see her, he didders at the possibility she will fall into trap he set for her mother, as a stay-on-shore wife of a seaman. It's the last thing he wants for her but, naturally (it's in her blood too), she promptly falls in love with a strapping, cocky young Irish stoker, Mat Burke (William Peden).
Fatal flaws are rife in all three of them and when the two men come to blows over Mat's intentions, Anna drops her own bombshell: it seems she's not the sweet young nurse he father thinks she is; she's a prostitute. All hell breaks loose and the men, as is their custom, repair to the nearest saloon to drink away their condition. But love is love, and Mat returns; Chris, eternally blaming it on "that ole davil," resigns himself to acceptance; and we head home ever mindful that "what's past is prologue".
Ms. Burke stages the play simply and effectively, and the same two words accurately describe Asaki Oda's set design. There is no revolutionary concept, no grand re-thinking, no deconstruction: just a solid well-considered presentation of O'Neill's work. And this is as it should be. Anna Christie is certainly not O'Neill at his best, but it deserves to be seen, and seen as written. If nothing else, it strikingly highlights its placement on the continuum of playwriting over the last hundred or so years. Chris's Scandinavian accent would connect this play to Ibsen even if Anna were not such an Ibsen-esque woman; in the work, one can also see the traces of Williams, Albee and any number of other modern playwrights yet to come.
Caroline Strong lives up to her surname as Anna. She's resolute and independent yet vulnerable, all convincingly rendered in an aptly period mode. Dale Fuller does wonders with Chris, a real character in all senses of the word. At once care-free and concerned, he may be quirky and a good deal short of qualifying for Mensa, but he's no joke. (he also does a bang-up Swedish accent.) One would have a hard time casting a more physically on-target Matt than William Peden, who also gets the character's rough-hewn innocence down pat. He is terrific in his courtship scenes, and only a slight bit less successful when it comes time to plead his case. Of the remaining cast members, most of whom are seen only briefly, Rebecca Hoodwin's Marthy, Chris's woman friend with dock-wise savvy and the good sense to know her exit cue (well, almost), is most worthy of mention.
It's said that at one point, after its original production, O'Neill wanted to throw this play in the trash heap. This revival makes us glad someone stopped him.
CurtainUp's Eugene O'Neill Playwright's Album, including links to reviews of his plays
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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