Eugene O'Neill

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Anna Christie at the Arena Stage

Reviewed by Yvonne Shafer


Anna Christie. Arena Stage, Washington, D.C., May 6-June 19, 2005.

The attraction of Anna Christie lies in part in the four marvelous roles O'Neill created, especially the dramatic part of Anna. A difficulty is the several scenes that seem to demand a full proscenium stage with the capability for extensive settings that can be changed rapidly. Arena stage succeeded in the production with a fine cast and an excellent solution to the problems of the settings.

The play presents quite a challenge for the actors. Louis Sheaffer called it a “work of mixed qualities” that “embodies cliches” (Sons and Artists 27). Certainly the play has been criticized for stereotypical characterization. Addressing that point the noted director Arvin Brown said, recollecting the production at Long Wharf Theatre, “The difficulties that it presents in relation to The Iceman in a funny way have to do with the fact that it isn’t quite as long and, therefore, not as detailed. I think the trap of Anna is to allow the characters to head more dangerously toward caricature than the characters in The Iceman—again its richness is that those characters are so specific, so clearly conceived. I think they are in Anna as well, but I think that it takes a greater leap of the imagination to find the depth in these people. It’s so easy, for example, with Marthy at the beginning. She’s a wonderful character, but she’s so often played very broadly, as she was in the movie. You know, Marie Dressler, who was a superb actress, but a broad actress. And her interpretation of that old woman in that famous first scene with Garbo, is delightful to watch, I mean it’s wonderful with all that eye rolling, but it’s not real, any more than in a certain way Garbo is real in that first scene, but that has to do with the mystique of Garbo and everything else. Atmosphere is hugely important in that play, people are always fascinated by the sea aspects in O'Neill’s works, but I think the danger is that the atmosphere envelopes to the point where the specificity of the characters can sometimes get lost” (Qtd. in Shafer, Performing O'Neill: Conversations with Actors and Directors, St. Martin’s 171).

Director Molly Smith worked with the actors to establish the needed reality. I was immediately struck by the strong and complex performance of Anne Scuria as Marthy, comparing it at once to the performance by Dressler which Brown accurately describes as delightful, but broad. Scuria gave a moving picture of a woman torn in several directions and putting up a brave front. As old Chris, Kevin Tighe was immediately persuasive, preparing the way for the emotional scenes at the end of the play. He conveyed the drunkenness and the perplexity of the man who is happy, alarmed, and embarrassed all at once when he finds that Anna is arriving. His accent, as were the others’, was convincing and consistent. Sara Surrey as Anna, was also convincing from her first entrance wearing “the tawdry finery of peasant stock turned prostitute.” Linda Cho gave her a costume with a feathered hat (which she smoothed and treated with pride), red high heeled shoes and a dress that revealed her fine figure and was just past conventional good taste. (The following costumes were very effective. O'Neill described her as wearing an oilskin coat over a dress, but this Anna wore trousers, high rubber boots and a sailor’s pea jacket when first seen on ship, then a simple skirt and white lace blouse matching her transformed view of herself.) Dan Snook was a bold and brash Mat Burke, his overalls minus shirt revealing his strong physique in his first scene and appropriately exuding sensuality. The cast of nine played the fourteen roles with an excellent ensemble feeling.

One of the strengths of the acting was in the performance of the comedy in the play. Too often O'Neill’s comic effects are ignored or suppressed, possibly because he has the reputation as the most tragic of American playwrights. Here not only was the comedy in the first scene played, but there was a great deal of comedy throughout. The audience laughed responsively at many points but did not fail to perceive and respond to the sharp shifts in mood from comedy to despair. Sheaffer wrote of Mat Burke “His Irishness is painted on so thick that he sometimes verges on being a stage Irishman” (Son and Artist 27). Snook was wonderfully funny throughout the play, but succeeded in demonstrating the vulnerability of the naïve Burke (“a big kid” as Anna calls him) and the depths of his emotions. Surprisingly, both Chris and Mat were more poignant than Anna. In contrast to the original Anna played by Pauline Lord, Surrey did not seem “licked” as she describes herself or as someone who had “lost hope” as one of the reviewers described her (Qtd. in Shafer 21). Perhaps today a tougher, more aggressive Anna is desired by the actress and the audience.

The setting and the lighting for the play created the proper atmosphere and a kind of haunting beauty. The stage was raked and the front was bounded by old driftwood. Above the actors was a mast and as the play opened the back of the stage was hung with ropes. For the first scene there was a bar stage right and two tables with chairs stage left. This was very effectively changed by the sailors who tossed the chairs to one another like  sailors unloading a ship. Their movement was accompanied by very pleasing sea sounds and original music designed by Eric Shim. The music was effective throughout the play, although a little too demanding when Anna was waiting for Mat’s return. All in all, the set designed by Bill C. Ray and lighting designed by Michael Gilliam created an excellent atmosphere and utilized the facilities of the Kreeger Theatre simply and effectively.

The final tableau indicated the director’s attention to detail and the fusion of setting and acting. Mat reacted to Chris’ pessimistic comments about the sea by turning away from Anna and staring out at the fog. Chris was downstage left, Mat downstage right, and Anna behind, forlornly leaning on the table contemplating the future. The lighting was dark and the fog hung over the stage. “Fog, fog, fog, all bloody time. You can’t see vhere you vas going, no. Only dat ole davil, sea—she knows.” The somewhat enigmatic and dark tableau is appropriate to O'Neill’s concept of the play and in contrast to productions which seem to present a “happy ending.” Mark Bly, the dramaturg, and director Smith probably were aware of O'Neill’s letter to George Jean Nathan in which he explained his feeling about the ending: “And the sea outside—life—waits. The happy ending is merely the comma at the end of a gaudy introductory clause, with the body of the sentence still unwritten. (In fact, I once thought of calling the play Comma.) My ending seems to have a false definiteness about it that is misleading—a happy-ever-after which I did not intend” (Qtd. in Sheaffer, Son and Artist 67). When the critics suggested he wrote a happy ending with the box office in mind, O'Neill publicly stated, “In the last few minutes of AnnaChristie I tried to show that dramatic gathering of new forces out of the old. I wanted to have the audience leave with a deep feeling of life flowing on . . . of a problem solved for the moment but by the very nature of its solution involving new problems” (Qtd. in Schaeffer, Son and Artist 67).

Smith clearly indicated her understanding of O'Neill’s work in this production. Her production of  A Moon for the Misbegotten at Arena Stage was a critical and popular success and her latest effort was enthusiastically received by the audience. One anticipates further O'Neill productions at the Arena Stage.

Yvonne Shafer is Professor of Speech, Communication Sciences and Theatre at St. John's University, and author of Performing O'Neill: Conversations with Actors and Directors.


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