‘Anna’ sails on emotionally turbulent seas

by David Dixon

The small cast deals with intense emotions in a compelling way. | Courtesy of Henry Dirocco
The small cast deals with intense emotions in a compelling way. | Courtesy of Henry Dirocco

The Christopherson’s sure are an interesting family. Chris Christopherson (Bill Buell) and his daughter Anna (Jessica Love) both want to protect each other for completely different reasons. Ironically, their good intentions lead them to suffer the consequences of their own actions.

The Old Globe’s production of “Anna Christie” is set during Fall 1910 when the alcohol-loving coal barge captain, Chris, is reunited with Anna. He abandoned her as a child because he did not want to expose her to the dangers of the sea. Chris allows the emotionally distant Anna to join him on his barge. Soon after, she falls in love with an easily angered sailor, Mat Burke (Austin Durant). Once Anna tells her father and Mat a secret she has been hiding, they both react in shocking ways that will affect all of their lives.

Eugene O’Neill’s dialogue is a big selling point in this revival. His words can be gloomy, yet there are beautiful, poetic moments of hope in which he shows empathy from the main characters.

At its heart, “Anna Christie” is a three-person play, though there is a total of nine performers. The second half of the production is comprised of lengthy intimate conversations, which is when “Anna Christie” is at its best.

As individual performers, Love, Buell and Durant can be great, but together they fuse metaphorical fireworks with the almost overwhelmingly disturbing scene when Anna reveals her hidden past. It comes as a shock because there are very few indications that the plot will take such a grim turn.

Director Daniel Goldstein’s vision is perfect for O’Neill’s melancholy prose, though he also includes personal touches such as when Anna is trying to make a crucial decision for her future as Joni Mitchell’s song “Blue” plays in the background. It is risky incorporating the 1970s single into something that was written more than 50 years prior, but it pays off as Mitchell’s voice along with Love’s sad silence adds a surprising amount of pathos.

Goldstein’s direction stands out the most in a transition from Act 1 to Act 2. The unforgettable moment occurs when a saloon is suddenly transformed into Chris’ barge. This sequence is a wonderful couple of minutes that cannot be done justice in a review and should be experienced as a live stage performance.

“Anna Christie” is surprisingly timeless in its themes. The issues involve abandonment, forgiveness and redemption that all factor into the decisions the flawed characters face. These characters are so emotionally damaged they should not earn sympathy from the audience. Fortunately, O’Neill’s writing along with the amazing central actors make them full of humanity.

Without aging a bit, “Anna Christie” is still a beautiful small-scale story with individuals who are not necessarily superior to anyone else in real life. They are only trying to do what every decent person should, attempting to make up for crucial mistakes they have committed in the past.

Tickets and information about “Anna Christie” can be found at theoldglobe.org.