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A Forceful 'Anna Christie'

Emotional truths in Eugene O'Neill's play pack a wallop under director Gar Campbell.

January 10, 2002|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Before he segued into the studied expressionism of his middle career, Nobel Prize winner Eugene O'Neill revolutionized the American stage with gritty dramas about life on the margins--a far cry from the polite chamber comedies and melodramas that were then standard theatrical fare.

It's easy to see why "Anna Christie," for which O'Neill won a Pulitzer in the early '20s, must have been such a shocker in its day. The play concerns the plight of Anna, a classic anti-heroine who resorts to prostitution after a lifetime of abuse and abandonment. When we first meet Anna, she is recovering from a wasting illness and has traveled to New York in hopes that her estranged father, Chris, will stake her to a rest cure. At sea on her father's coal barge, Anna meets Mat, a shipwrecked sailor who wants to marry her. But first, she has to set him straight about the unpleasant details of her past.

Those who inextricably link the play with the famous 1930 film starring Greta Garbo will find its present production at Pacific Resident Theatre a revelation. Granted, given today's bare-all, tell-all standards, O'Neill's drama is hardly likely to seriously rankle anyone's proprieties. However, its emotional force remains undiminished by time.

That's largely due to the close-to-the-bone direction by Gar Campbell, whose emphasis on the play's psychological truth relegates Garbo's performance to the history books. Even potentially campy lines like Anna's "Give me a whiskey ... and don't be stingy, baby" sound fresh and original, given the absolute authority of Campbell's staging.

That authority extends to the play's fine technical elements. Victoria Profitt's scenic art design and David Dionisio's scenic design combine to give the production an appropriately stripped-down, penurious look--"Lower Depths" on the waterfront. Kellie Canning's costumes look unobtrusively well-worn, Keith Endo's lighting is as flickering and changeable as the ocean itself and Kevin Rahm's subtle sound design is exceptional--all creaking timbers and distant bells.

A praiseworthy cast tackles this period drama with unremitting genuineness, from the leads right down to the lesser roles. Paula Malcomson (double-cast in the role with Lesley Fera) plays Anna as a deadpan waif whose tough exterior masks her ravaging disappointment and pain. Tim Murphy (who shares the role with Matt McKenzie) captures both the bluster and the yearning of Mat, the Irish stoker who idealizes Anna as the first "decent" girl of his acquaintance. Double-cast with Bonnie Bowers, Jennifer Lonsway brings a no-frills earthiness to the role of Marthy, a boozy floozy with a heart of gold.

In the most memorable performance of a memorable lot, Bruce French (doubling with William Lithgow), plays Chris, Anna's neglectful father, a hard-drinking Swedish sailor who blames "dat ol' debbil sea" for his own personal shortcomings.

French makes Chris a fascinating study in contradictions, a sentimental and irresponsible fellow-ill-met as endearing as he is contemptible.

*

"Anna Christie," Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends March 10. $20 to $23.50. (310) 822-8392. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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