Good plays never go out of style. Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1922, may seem dated in some of its characterizations or its depiction of a seagoing society that no longer exists, but it can still pack a powerful dramatic punch.
That raw intensity is most succinctly present in the last two acts of the new production at the Studio Theater. Before that, this production was in severe danger of being subverted by its actors, a talented, energetic group who just didn't seem to be able to dig below the surface. But, thankfully, when really put to the challenge, they came through with flying colors.
Caroline Strong plays the title character, and the difficulties she has are, of course, built into the character. A woman who wants to put her troubled and sordid past behind her, Anna returns to New York to meet with her father, Chris (Dale Fuller), the captain of a coal barge who introduces her to the wonders of seafaring life. Through an accident of fate, she's introduced to the Irish stoker Mat Burke (William Peden), and is exposed to true, passionate love for the first time.
Strong has some trouble reconciling the two halves of her character. While she wears Anna's refined shell like a second skin, the harder, more world-weary woman underneath is not as easily at her disposal. Her outbursts against men in general (or the two men in her life in particular) don't always seem truthful, making her later character developments have less impact.
When those developments do come, however, Strong is right on top of them, negotiating the twists and turns brilliantly. The difference in her performance between the first half of the show and second is so pronounced, it's almost difficult to believe they are both part of the same play. Though it takes some hard work for both her (and the audience) to get there, Strong's performance in the third and fourth acts approaches brilliant.
Peden's Mat is an integral part of this as well. When he appears in the second act, he supercharges the production with primal energy that changes everything he touches. The change in his character in the second half of the play is as vital as Anna's, and his is even more heartbreaking and dramatic. When the two finally coalesce, the result proves well worth the wait. Only two problems prevent these moments from being dangerously explosive.
The first is the direction by Mary Catherine Burke. Though she does fine throughout the evening, she spends a great deal of time trying to establish a claustrophobic atmosphere, but never succeeds. Asaki Oda's set, a brown box with shifting panels and curtains, creates perfectly the inside of a stingy bar or the inner depths of a coal barge, but is too wide and deep for what Burke wants.
The second problem is Fuller, never the equal of Peden or Strong. His condemnations of the sea's affects on peoples' lives are almost laughable, and he never proves a real obstacle to Mat's intentions. Why Mat sees him as a threat at all is never clear. Both Barry J. Hirsch (as bartender "Johnny-the-Priest") and Rebecca Hoodwin as Chris's longtime love affair make strong impressions, though they never appear beyond the first scene.
Still, Anna Christie is an exciting, emotional play, and Strong and Peden, at the top of their form, do their best to bring out the best in it.
Cold Productions and Chance Michaels