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THEATER REVIEW: Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie” soars at The Old Globe

Anna Christie gets title billing, but Anna’s father Chris Christopherson is at the heart of Eugene O’Neill’s story about a coal barge captain and his daughter reunited after a 15-year estrangement.

“Anna Christie” plays through April 14 at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre as part of The Old Globe’s Classics Up Close series. Daniel Goldstein directs.

The story is simple: Hard-drinking Chris (Bill Buell) has spent the last 15 years on the sea, while his wife and Anna waited in Sweden for his return. Finally tired of the wait, she took Anna and moved to Minnesota, dying shortly thereafter. Anna ended up living on a Minnesota farm owned by cousins, who treated her like a slave; one of them even raped her when she was 16.

A letter announcing Anna’s imminent arrival brings what Chris hopes will be opportunities for reconciliation with his only living relative. It’s heartwarming to watch his excitement and fear in the preparations.

His immediate problem is live-in girlfriend Marthy Owen (a wondrously fine Kristine Nielsen). But Marthy, saying “Yuh treated me square, yuhself” is gracious and volunteers to leave.

Anna (Jessica Love) arrives, thin and exhausted, and sinks into a chair at the bar where Marthy is still working on a beer. It doesn’t take a minute before Marthy finds out who she is and realizes that she and Anna (Jessica Love) share the world’s oldest profession.

Anna has most recently done time in jail and in a hospital. She is spent and in need of a place to rest and regain her strength. She moves to the barge with Chris, who still sees her as innocent and thinks she is the “nurse gal” she claimed to be in a previous letter.

Anna surprisingly takes to life on the sea, saying it makes her feel “clean somehow.” But when Chris rescues some men from a sinking ship, and one of them – Mat Burke (Austin Durant) – falls for Anna, problems arise. This is not the life Chris wants for his daughter: he has already lost two brothers and two sons to “dat ole davil sea.”

“Anna Christie” is seldom produced, partly because it is difficult to stage, especially in the round. The sea must be indicated somehow, fog must be shown and lines thrown. Even more difficult is the mishmash of accents and dialects required. Chris has a heavy Swedish accent, even written into the script. Mat is Irish and must have an accent to match.

Atmospherics for this production are good: Wilson Chin’s set has a properly rugged look; fog occasionally covers the stage; Austin R. Smith’s lighting is mood-inducing but sometimes – such as at the top of the second act – bright and distracting for patrons in some areas of the theater.

Buell owns this production, commanding the stage whenever he’s on it. Chris is basically a good man with huge guilt for succumbing to the call of the sea and ignoring that at home. Anna is his blind spot: he needs her to be innocent and undamaged by his actions. Even the required heavy Swedish accent doesn’t keep Buell from communicating the swagger and the guilt, the conflict and the hope that have set him psychologically adrift.

Durant is also excellent as Mat, the burly coal stoker who gets what he wants by virtue of brute force. Durant is exactly the kind of person Chris wants to keep away from his Anna. But Mat has the Irish gift of gab and try as he will, Chris cannot keep them apart.

Nielsen’s Marthy is a wonder: she paints in look and movement the hard-living waterfront hooker with, yes, a heart of gold who brings her own version of a feminine touch to the male-dominated world of the sea. Pity she didn’t have more onstage time.

Local actors Jason Maddy and John Garcia are welcome faces in small roles.

It’s Love’s characterization of Anna that gives pause. This Anna looks and sounds more like a modern college student than a beaten-by-life prostitute with a difficult past. Her speech (other than the frequent use of “ain’t”) is almost the king’s English (without the king’s accent), where it should be the talk of an uneducated farmgirl-turned-hooker. She seems to have wandered in from some other play.

O’Neill is not known for happy endings, and “Anna Christie” is no exception. “Dat ole davil sea” that claimed so many lives now seems to have another captive, and life goes on.

The details

“Anna Christie” plays through April 14 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.

For tickets, call (619) 234-5623 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.