- The Washington Times - Friday, May 13, 2005

Those who tag Eugene O’Neill as an incorrigible sourpuss will have to rethink after seeing director Molly Smith’s ripely comic, ripsnorting take on “Anna Christie.”

Arena’s production bears little resemblance to the romantic gloom of the 1930 movie starring Greta Garbo as the barge captain’s daughter with a damaged past who finds redemption at sea and a chance at a new life with a rescued Irish sailor. Other than the same characters and a pervasive pea-soup fog, the two “Anna Christies” could not be more different.

Miss Smith takes a tough-minded tack in her portrait of calloused early 20th-century Americans living at sea and in the cities along the Eastern Seaboard. There’s nothing remotely nostalgic in her interpretation of these survivors: They’re as flinty and hard as the whalebone carved by the sailors.

Anna (Sara Surrey) is barely 20, but has the jaded bitterness of someone three times her age. Confined to a Minnesota farm by a father (Chris, played by Kevin Tighe) hoping to protect her from a life at sea, Anna was a slave-relation to her kin and raped at 16 by one of her cousins. Fleeing to St. Paul, Anna eventually became a prostitute, developing a walloping hatred of men along the way.

She arrives in New York, bedraggled and enervated, to meet a father she hasn’t seen in 15 years. Chris is an agreeable old cuss, set in his ways and ideas who blames everything on “the sea, that old she-devil.”

He takes Anna to the barge, where the dense fog and sea air wipes her clean. The family reunion looks cozy until the appearance of Mat Burke (Dan Snook) — a strapping young man who does for overalls what Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski did for white T-shirts.

Anna succumbs to Mat’s persistence and sheer physical force, falling in love, much to her father’s anger. In a booze-fueled, pre-dawn exchange, the two men battle for dominance over Anna, but it is she who forges a new dynamic based on raw honesty.

It is not men that Anna hates, but the male-dominated society that roils with hypocrisy and double standards. Refusing to be owned or bossed around and knowing what it is like to earn a living, she insists on being a modern woman who thinks for herself and takes care of herself.

The character of Anna Christie represents a sea change in American society. She has a sexual past, but does not let that condemn her as a slattern unsuitable for a loving marriage.

Miss Smith revels in the naked, fledgling nature of Anna and the other characters in a production as vigorous and vibrantly crude as life at sea. The production sings with the crackle of 1920s city slang, the ragtime and jazz-baby rhythms inherent in Mr. O’Neill’s dialogue. Humor and tough-guy patois abound in both the male and female characters, adding to the play’s salty charms.

Miss Surrey attacks the role of Anna with great rigor, so defensive and touchy she’s almost punch-drunk from fending off blows real and imagined. Once she regains some balance at sea, the true Anna surfaces — strong, courageous and stark in her emotions.

It would take some man to handle all that truth, but Mr. Snook’s Mat Burke appears up to the challenge. His Mat has bulled his way through life using his body, but also displays a felicitous gift of gab and some wildly hilarious dysfunction when it comes to religion.

Between these two marvelous extremes lies Mr. Tighe’s irascible Chris, a sea captain hardened in body and mind, who learns almost too late in life of his roaring paternal instinct. Anne Scurria also displays scene-stealing canniness as a generous-souled waterfront floozie.

Bill C. Ray’s rotting ship set effectively sets the mood of characters who are essentially floating on a wooden corpse, representing the past and all of its fetid turmoil. Michael Gilliam’s lighting design beautifully replicates shrouds of fog and the delicate interplay of light at sea.

The sea is everything in “Anna Christie,” not just a body of water, but a supernatural, unfeeling force that gives life and takes it away, and also has the ability to give a fallen woman a watery rebirth.

***1/2

WHAT: “Anna Christie” by Eugene O’Neill

WHERE: Kreeger Theatre, Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, noon Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through June 19.

TICKETS: $40 to $59

PHONE: 202/488-3300

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