By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Scott Edmiston
The Lyric Stage, Boston
Through May 6th
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
When Lindsey McWhorter first steps onto the stage in the role of Anna Christie she is carrying a suitcase. This single piece of luggage that doesn’t look particularly large or heavy, Anna is toting as if it contains the weight of the world. And, symbolically, it does. Anna has returned to see her father after an absence of 20 years. She has had an undisclosed illness and to convalesce has made the trip to New York from Minnesota. She was sent to Minnesota to live with relatives after her mother died.
Chris (Johnny Lee Davenport), Anna’s father had received a letter from her announcing her planned visit. While excited about seeing her again, he is nervous and also has to adjust his living arrangements as he doesn’t want his daughter thinking ill of him. This means telling his live in girlfriend and drinking buddy Marthy (Nancy E. Carroll) she will have to move off the the barge they have been sharing. Marthy is at first angry but understands.
By chance, Marthy meets Anna before she has a chance to see her father. The two share drinks in the local bar. Marthy quickly picks up on the fact Anna is no stranger to hard drinking. She can also sense Anna has brought more luggage with her than what is in her suitcase.
The dialog is what you would expect of Eugene O’Neill, intense but not heavy. A lot is said but none of it is superfluous. These are the type of words I would imagine actors must savor working with. And this cast is made up of some very fine actors.
Ms McWhorter is powerful from start to finish. Her Anna, with a hard exterior formed from years of abandonment and abuse from the men around her, still hasn’t lost the desire to be loved. She does struggle with her lack of self worth and suspicion of men, yet retains a strength and a desire to be accepted for who she is, faults and all.
Johnny Lee Davenport’s Chris couldn’t be better. From the moment he orders his first drink and starts speaking with his rich voice I felt I wanted to pull up a chair next to him and join in. Chris has not led an easy life either. He sent Anna off in hopes of allowing her to have a better life, one away from men who make their living at sea. Mr. Davenport conveys the love that Chris never lost for Anna. His pride for her shows in his body language and eyes when he speaks of, and anticipates, his daughter’s return.
Things become more complicated when an Irish seaman by the name of Mat (Dan Whelton) is washed ashore after a shipwreck and he and Anna begin to fall in love. Anna’s distrust of men is one obstacle, but other tings in her past are also something she struggles to deal with. It is now that her baggage begins to be unpacked.
Dan Whelton displays a wonderful Irish accent as he goes back and forth with Anna and Chris. Mr. Whelton and Mr. Davenport have a wonderful energy between them as they seem at times ready to kill one another, yet are very much alike; Stubborn, bullheaded, and kind hearted.
Unfortunately, Nancy E. Carroll’s Marthy is not on stage after the first act, but while she is, it is a joy watching her perform. She speaks the words O’Neill has written with a swagger reminiscent of a character from a 1930’s gangster movie; a touch of Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney. This conveys the rough edge she has from living and working on the waterfront as well as her way of dealing with the rough edged men in her life. And, as with the others, she betrays a tenderness and understanding. It works very well.
James R. Milord plays Larry the barkeeper. After having served Chris and Anna hard liquor separately, he shows subtle amusement when each tones down their wicked ways in order to put on a good face for the other.
Watching all of this unfold is sad, touching, and even funny at times. Director Scott Edmiston has pared done the script without losing any of the essential parts, leaving us with a Eugene O’Neill play that takes place in less than two hours.
I’m sure that many will read into this work issues of the power men have over women and how women deal with it. While that is understandable, it is also good to see this as what happens when people are able to accept each other with all their faults, face their own weakness, and allow better natures to prevail. This is a story that could have ended on a very ugly note. It didn’t, and we can all learn from that.
Eugene O’Neill’s works are among the greatest in American drama. They can be very heavy and usually are long but also amazing. This play is deep and filled with emotion, but it will not leave you filled with despair, and it certainly is not drawn out. Director Scott Edmiston has gotten it right, and I would encourage those who have not taken in a work by O’Neill to start here. It will stir your emotions but not overwhelm you. You will see five very fine actors working with the words of a great playwright. And, you will see it all at the wonderful Lyric Stage Theater, a warm and intimate performing venue.