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A CurtainUp Review
The play begins when Anna, sick and friendless, seeks refuge with her father, who is now captain of a coal barge that never leaves port. Through a happy set of circumstances, Anna falls in love with a coal stoker her father rescues from drowning. After overcoming numerous difficulties, including her father's initial opposition and the revealing of her own shady past, the two decide to marry and, presumably, live happily ever after.
Anna Christie is a surprising play for several reasons. Unlike most of O'Neill's work, it ends happily. And unlike most melodramas of its era, it is both respected and frequently performed today.
What is it that makes Anna Christie so enduring? Most probably a combination of O'Neill's gift for creating believable characters and making poetry flow from their lips so naturally the audience forgets these are the words of a skilled artist.
Metropolitan Playhouse's staging, directed by Robert Z. Kalfin, is a simple, low-cost production. It actually benefits from the small stage. The intimate theater effectively illustrates the confined world in which Anna lives. But the real pillar of this production is Sam Tsoutsouvas, a fine actor whose portrayal of Anna's father, the crusty captain, Chris Christopherson, is nothing short of perfection.
It was O'Neill's great genius that allowed him to turn a man who took little interest in his wife and less in his daughter, into a gentle hero — a man who has been misled but never wanted to hurt anyone or do evil. It is Tsoutsouvas's great talent that allows him to breathe life into that character. He looks, sounds and moves so much like the captain one can almost smell the salt water inside the theater.
Roger Clark is also outstanding as the handsome, passionate, pious and somewhat hypocritical Mat Burke, who finds himself bound to Anna in spite of her past. This is no small accomplishment, considering how outdated the character is in our much more permissive times.
Jenne Vath completes the triangle with her restrained portrayal of Anna, a woman who is down but not yet out. Anna can chug her liquor but still clings to her dignity. She knows she's damaged goods, but despite the fate that most probably awaits her, she refuses to give up. Vath effortlessly conveys both the hope and the despair.
Paul Hudson's subdued lighting and Michael Anania's rustic set, with ropes suspended from above being the principal indication of the sea and the ship, keep O'Neill's universal themes of love and hope firmly anchored in time and place.
Kalfin has wisely given himself modest goals. He has not sought to reinterpret O'Neill, add unnecessary bells and whistles or give the play a modern context. He has instead trusted that his audience will be able to accept the play on its own terms and because of the strength of O'Neill's splendid gift for dialogue. His instincts have proved correct.