That Ol' Devil Sea
Anna Christie at the Cell Theatre
According to the program notes, Eugene O'Neill didn't much care for his play Anna Christie, despite the fact that he won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1922. He pushed the script through several arduous revisions, but even when it was finally done O'Neill told people the story was “too easy,” a charge that could hardly be made for his other major plays.
In this case, though, he had a small point. Anna Christie is certainly tidy, maybe even too tidy, like a TV drama that rushes to wrap up in time for the 10 o'clock news. This play doesn't fuel itself on O'Neill's infamously tragic view of human existence. Instead, this time out, the old sourpuss leaves us with a surprisingly cheerful ending. Of course, a little optimism can be nice at times, and it makes this play a lot more accessible than some of O'Neill's darker pieces.
Anna Christie opens in a waterfront bar in New York. An aging Swedish sailor, Chris Christopherson (Gary Houston), learns that his daughter, Anna Christie (Anna Felix), will soon be visiting him. This is a momentous event because Chris hasn't seen her since she was a little girl. Two decades ago, he sent her to Minnesota to live on a farm with relatives so she could put a safe distance between herself and “that ol' devil sea,” a spiritual force that rules over Chris in a manner he loathes but also can't live without.
The old sailor's fantasies about his sweet, long-lost daughter don't in any way match up to the reality of her past. When Anna falls for a rough and ragged Irish sailor named Mat Burke (Justin Lenderking), their already strained relationship threatens to shred to pieces.
Director Laurie Thomas and her crew have created a weirdly anachronistic setting for this story. The characters dress in early 19th century garb, yet a trio of flat-screen televisions hangs over the stage, flashing footage of the sky and the New York City waterfront. Likewise, contemporary Celtic-inspired music serves as a soundtrack. Added to these incongruous elements is Houston's somewhat less-than-authentic Swedish accent.
Still, the production comes together well, largely on the strength of the volatile chemistry created between Houston, Felix and Lenderking. Even with the strained accent, Houston is excellent as the concerned but delusional father. Felix does the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold routine exceptionally well. And Lenderking is bombastic and funny as the crazy, Irish seaman. Some excellent secondary performers also sharpen the production, most notably Kristin de la O, who takes a brief but absorbing turn in the first act as Chris' drunken, empathetic girlfriend.
It's the trio of main characters that really makes this play shine, though. As the friction between them swells, you can't help but become absorbed in their simple, fascinating predicament.
Yes, the finale is a bit pat, but O'Neill was still probably being too hard on himself. There's nothing wrong with a happy ending and a shot of redemption, especially when they come to characters who, despite their many flaws, are so engaging and likable.
Anna Christie , a play by Eugene O'Neill directed by Laurie Thomas, runs through Dec. 17 at the Cell Theatre. Presented by the Fusion Theatre Company. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. $22 general, $17 students/seniors. Thursday performances feature a student rush ($10 with valid ID) and actor rush ($15 with professional résumé). 766-9412, www.fusionabq.org.