Lyric Stage's "Anna Christie": Life on a Skoal Barge

Lindsey McWhorter & Johnny Lee Davenport in "Anna Christie"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

It's hard to fathom the fact that the play Anna Christie by Eugene O'Neill is just a couple of years shy of a century old. O'Neill won the 1922 Pulitzer Prize for this work (his second, after 1920's Beyond the Horizon) and was to go on to win several more, as well as the 1936 Nobel Prize for Literature. This play, originally performed in four acts, takes place partly in Provincetown and Boston in 1921, and has had several Broadway revivals (including the 1993 Tony award winner for best revival) as well as the famous 1930 Garbo film. It was even the source for a 1957 musical, New Girl in Town with Gwen Verdon, which survived over a year in New York despite its ludicrous lyrics by Robert Merrill (who would have a much bigger impact just two years later with Take Me Along, based on O'Neill's Ah Wilderness).

Nancy E. Carroll & Johnny Lee Davenport in "Anna Christie"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

In this version, updated and trimmed down by Director Scott Edmiston for Boston's Lyric Stage, we are wisely spared having to decipher the Swedish dialect in O'Neill's original, which hasn't aged well. The basic story remains the reunion (after a twenty year separation) between the title character Anna Christie (Lindsey McWhorter) and her father, Chris C. Christopherson (Johnny Lee Davenport), the captain of a coal barge. Having abandoned her when she was five and moved her from the family home in Sweden to a Minnesota farm, and to a life of hardship, he is unprepared for her unexpected letter announcing her imminent arrival. In anticipation of his daughter's appearance, Christopherson has just dumped his live-in lady friend Marthy Owen (Nancy E. Carroll) in a New York waterfront saloon run by Larry (James R. Milord). After some awkward moments it seems as though father and daughter have accepted one another, more or less, until a shipwreck lands an Irish stoker, Mat Burke (Dan Whelton), who quickly falls in love with Anna (and vice versa), a development her father strongly resists. While Christopherson wants his daughter to have no part of a romance with a seaman, Mat wants to marry her; each seeks to fashion her in his own image, but she wants control of her own life. When she finally shares her past with them, they both go on a two-day bender and independently sign up for the crew of the same ship heading out the next day to Capetown South Africa. They promise to return after the voyage and she faces life alone until then, minus her two hard-drinking companions.

Dan Whelton & Lindsey McWhorter in "Anna Christie"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Edmiston's pared-down take on the tale doesn't diminish some of its stereotypical elements and coincidences, but it does make it possible to focus on these three characters each in search of personal redemption. Having eliminated several minor characters and plot devices (such as the role Marthy plays in the original's revelation of Anna's past), Edmiston allows for the three leads to shine in their respective roles, notably McWhorter in the title performance and Davenport in his once-towering parental figure. Whelton, in a less developed part, is to some extent hampered by a thickening Irish brogue, which doesn't help to portray his demons as well as those of the others. What does help is the evocative Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, as well as the stark Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, simple yet effective Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker and the ominous Sound Design (and original music) by Dewey Dellay.

Anna could be viewed as a product of her time, or decades ahead of it; the latter seems more appropriate, given O'Neill's early feminist realism versus the prevalent melodrama of the early twentieth century. As her father at one point declaims, “that old devil sea, she ain't God”. Anna ultimately seizes control, telling both men in her life to go to hell. It's a rare opportunity to experience fine acting in an undeniably challenging, dated work. O'Neill was born in one hotel and died in another; in between he wrote fifty plays, of which this has proven to be, ironically, timeless.

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