A couple of months ago I reviewed a version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. I didn’t particularly enjoy either the play itself or the rather wooden production it received. It was, therefore, with a degree of trepidation that I approached a play by the same writer/company as before although I resolved to clear my mind of my previous encounter and approach this with an open attitude. After all Anna Christie which predates the other piece won the 1922 Pulitzer prize for drama and therefore had to have something going for it. The only other thing I knew about it was that the 1930 film version starred Greta Garbo in her first speaking role after the days of the silent movies; it featured the famous tag line “Garbo speaks!”
Given the experimental nature of some of O’Neill’s plays, Anna Christie has a rather conventional structure. The protagonist has grown up on a farm in Minnesota estranged from her father, a Swedish immigrant, since she was a young girl. She reunites with him in a seedy bar and then goes to live on the coal barge he captains. They rescue a young stoker, Mat Burke and they fall for each other. But Anna is hiding the secret that she fell into a life of prostitution (post farm and pre coal barge) and feels forced into a corner about revealing her former activities. In many ways this is a harking back to the “woman with a past” plays of Oscar Wilde although set in an entirely different social milieu. And O’Neill thankfully takes things in a different direction. As Anna’s father and intended husband fight for domination of her soul, she stands up to both and declares her independence of spirit. This precipitates, for this writer, an atypical if rather muted happy ending.
Katie Nabors is the best element in an uneven production and makes for a sparky and engaging central figure with just the right mix of innocence and experience. She’s no Garbo but it’s actually a role that benefits from subsuming star quality and emphasising the ordinariness of the character. When it is revealed early on that Anna has just been in hospital, Nabors makes it abundantly clear without any dialogue what she has undergone. And her “declaration of independence” speech to the two men is deftly handled. It’s a good part for a young actor and Nabors seizes her opportunity.
I felt less convinced by the two male characters both of whom seemed to be struggling vocally. Michael Johnson’s Irish accent was done well enough, but his speech patterns became simply monotonous in the attempt to keep intonation accurate; his physical presence as a brawny stoker didn’t ring particularly true either. As the father, Greg White’s Swedish accent seemed rather generic (the Muppets’ chef kept springing to mind) and wasn’t helped by the only just satisfactory sound quality of the recording; I actually had no idea what he was saying some of the time. This was especially the case in the first act when the character was even more incoherent because of alcohol. I don’t know why some actors seem to think the way to convey inebriation is by copious slurring and staggering around; often drunks speak in an over precise manner and move very gingerly in an attempt to mask what is really going on.
There is a small ensemble of other actors but their roles in the action are minimal and certainly O’Neill doesn’t seek to develop their characters at all. Ian Hinz directs again but this time with a greater sense of purpose. It’s a long play to hold the attention particularly with limited recording equipment at your disposal. Hinz is also the set designer and makes good use of the space conveying the idea of the ocean setting with a degree of skill; this is enhanced via Andrew Eckert’s moody lighting. The dry ice fog, though, doesn’t particularly convince as it doesn’t linger long enough and clears before another burst is forthcoming; in fact, it at times distracts.
Anna Christie is a play that deserves to be seen by anyone interested in the development of drama in the 20th century, particularly as it challenges the status quo for the way women were once subjected to moral censure. This version won’t set the world alight but is a competent rendering which conveys a sense of time and place in a storyline that wouldn’t cause much upset in today’s far more cynical world.