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San Francisco by Richard Connema

An Intriguing Production of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie at Center Rep


Also see Richard's reviews of Smoke and Mirrors and My Antonia

The Center REPertory Company is currently presenting Eugene O'Neill's 1922 Pulitzer Prize drama Anna Christie on the stage of the Margaret Lesher Theatre at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts through April 24th. Artistic director Lee Sankowich's production boasts three of the finest actors in the Bay Area. Delia MacDougall as Anna, Ken Ruta as the father Crist and Aldo Billingslea as the muscular lover Matt give brilliant performances.

Anna Christie has had a fascinating theatrical history. Eugene O'Neill wrote what was his first play in 1921 and he admitted he used every theatrical trick that he had learned to write this play. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for best drama in 1922. Looking back, Mr. O'Neill later rejected the play as being a minor work. However, today, audiences and critics praise the play as one of the playwright's major works. They love the confirmation of the power of love and forgiveness that radiates from the drama.

O'Neill's classic drama has had a long history of performances. Anna Christie opened at the Vanderbuilt Theatre on November 2nd, 1921 to great critical acclaim. Pauline Lord was the first Anna. I first saw the play in its brief run at the Lyceum Theatre in New York on January 23rd, 1952 which starred a young Celeste Holm as Anne. The production boasted a great cast that included Art Smith playing the father Chris. Also in small roles were Kevin McCarthy and Arthur O'Connell as longshoremen in the opening saloon scene. It ran only eight performances. I saw Liv Ullmann recreate the role at the Imperial in April 1977. John Lithgow played her lover Mat. I was also fortunate to see Liam Neeson as Mat and Natasha Richardson as Anna in the Criterion Theatre production in 1993. Bob Merrill along with George Abbot made a musical from the drama in 1957 and called it New Girl in Town, starring the wonderful Gwen Verdon as Anna and Thelma Ritter as the old lady. The musical played 431 performances on Broadway. It was one of my highlights of 1957. Last year, the drama played in Beijing China and was directed by a noted Chinese director. One of the most classic films is MGM's Anna Christie which was Garbo's first talking picture. Her most famous opening line, "Give me a 'viskey' and don't be stingy," in that famous deep sorrowful voice is still remembered by film buffs.

Anna Christie is a classically complex tale about a cast off who turned to prostitution and now travels from Minnesota to the New York waterfront in search of her father. Chris the father deserted her 15 year earlier at a farm in upstate Minnesota where she became a "slave" to the family. She escaped the family and turned to prostitution to make a living. Chris is now a slow-witted Swedish born captain of a coal barge and is over the moon for the chance to make amends, so Anna is invited to live with him on the boat. His joy turns to fear as he watches Anna's growing love for the seaman's life and her relationship with an emotionally disordered ship's stoker. Cris blames everything on "dat ole devil, sea" which has consumed his life. The playwright gives this trio some strident, energizing clashes of wills that squash their being yet give them the purpose to revive their lives.

Director Lee Sankowich has obtained a wonderful interaction among the three main characters. Ken Ruda gives a bang up performance with a beautiful Swedish accent that is a delight to hear. His first meeting with Anna after fifteen years of separation is a wondrous moment of theatrical acting. His looks and intonations are joys to behold. This is one of his greatest roles.

Delia MacDougall is stunning as Anna. She plays the role as a tough world wise person who has been around the block a couple of times. She is very defensive in her relationships with men. She is most riveting at the end of the play when there is a battle between the father and lover in the dramatic marriage proposal scene. Ms. MacDougall has a Clair Trevor voice and manner in this production. Aldo Billingslea, who has been working recently with Shakespeare Santa Cruz, gives a wonderful performance as Mat Burke, radiating an aura of both uncontrolled precariousness and vulnerability. He also sports an excellent Irish accent.

Eric Sinkkonen's sets are remarkable. The first act is an amazingly detailed saloon set while the second the set changes to the deck of Chris' coal barge with glowing fog helped by Kurt Landisman's lighting effect. The final act is an excellent reproduction of the interior of the cabin. Once of the most interesting effects is that at start of each act (there are four acts with two intermissions due to the detailed sets) when the theatre goes pitch dark and suddenly there is a flash of light like someone has just taken a flash picture. The stage is bathed momentary in the white light with the characters remaining motionless. It's an amazing start for each act.

Anna Christie runs through April 24 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. The Cowgirls return for the last production of the current season in May. For tickets call 925-943-7469 or visit www.dlrca.org.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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