Berkshire Theatre Group at the Fitgerald Main Stage
By: David Sheward
The massive dramatic works of Eugene O’Neill can be a challenge for modern theatermakers and audiences. While the undeniable tragic force of powerhouses like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh, and A Moon for the Misbegotten compensates for somewhat creaky structure and dialogue, some of the more rarely performed plays can succumb to their melodramatic limitations if not handled properly.
One such piece is Anna Christie, O’Neill’s 1922 Pulitzer Prize winner detailing the emotional triangle among the title character, a reformed prostitute; her Swedish seafaring father, Chris; and Matt, the brawling Irish stoker who, ignorant of her shady past, falls in love with her. Anna is probably best known from the 1931 MGM film version that provided Greta Garbo with her first speaking role. More-recent Broadway revivals starring Liv Ullman and Natasha Richardson have emphasized Anna’s proto-feminism. When she is forced to reveal her former profession, she defiantly castigates her father and suitor for their moral outrage. Haven’t they been guilty of the same "sin" by patronizing the type of establishments she was forced to work in?
Unfortunately, the play is loaded with hokey stage devices, long talky scenes, and Chris’s repetitious ruminations on the evil influence of "dat ole devil sea," which he believes has ruined the lives of all involved. In Berkshire Theatre Group’s production in Stockbridge, Mass., director David Auburn (playwright of Proof) nearly succeeds in overcoming these flaws to deliver a passionate, believable tale of three people struggling to make the best of the bad hand fate has dealt them. Auburn and the solid cast can’t quite compensate for cobwebbed plot machinations-Chris gets a delayed letter from Anna on the same day he is to meet her after 15 years apart, Matt declares his intention to marry Anna just minutes after he first lays eyes on her, etc. Yet the staging and limning are so simple and direct, we almost forget these old-fashioned tricks.
Rebecca Brooksher carries Anna’s damaged past around like a sack of dirty laundry. She wants to hide it but is clearly ready to swing it at anyone who challenges her. The weight and anguish of her father’s abandonment can be seen in her every gesture and inflection. Yet she forcefully conveys Anna’s objective: to discard that laundry bag and get on with her life despite her dad’s obsession with the sea. Jonathan Hogan makes for a lovable, rascally Chris; he even manages to make the character’s endless declamations against the ocean bearable. Derek Wilson finds the vulnerability beneath Matt’s muscular bluster, keeping him from turning into a bragging bully. Alison Fraser (The Secret Garden, Romance/Romance) is especially moving as Marthy, the veteran waterfront dame sharing digs with Chris. Beneath the tattered rags and whisky-soaked growl, you can see the enchanting young girl she once was.
One quibble about the casting: Brooksher and Wilson are so good-looking and well-scrubbed even when they’re supposed to be covered with grime, it’s a little hard to believe them as working-class stiffs. Yet they illuminate the emotional truth of O’Neill’s downtrodden lovers.
August 28, 2013
Aug. 24-Sept. 1. Berkshire Theatre Group at the Fitzgerald Main Stage, 83 E. Main St., Stockbridge, Mass. Sat-Sat 8pm, Sun Sept. 1 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes with intermission. $38-58. (413) 997-4444.
Photo By Abby LePage
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