Regional Theater Review: ANNA CHRISTIE (The Old Globe in San Diego)

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by Tony Frankel on March 21, 2012

in Theater-Regional

ODD CASTING CHOICE NEARLY SINKS SHOW

There is a perplexing and ultimately infuriating casting choice in the Old Globe’s production of Anna Christie that nearly sinks Eugene O’Neill’s 1921 tale of two sea-faring men and the woman who comes between them. Nearly. There is enough fully-realized acting and truly breathtaking stagecraft (including a scene change that, deservedly, received thunderous applause) to recommend this tragicomedy.

Plus, there is the Pulitzer Prize-winning play itself. The attentive spectator will be rewarded by dialogue that masterfully blends exposition with distinct character development and dialect (O’Neill writes phonetically). Listen closely and you will understand why O’Neill is oft regarded as the greatest American playwright. While director Daniel Goldstein is responsible for both the egregious casting mistake of the titular role and differing but suitable acting styles, he nonetheless unearths the humor necessary to balance O’Neill’s tragic circumstances, while triumphantly utilizing the in-the-round theater, offering impeccably inventive staging.

Anna_Christie19_webAnna is the daughter of the grizzled and loveable old Swede Chris, who abandoned her at the age of five on a relative’s Minnesota farm when his beloved wife died. After a lifetime of abuse, a rape by a cousin, prostitution, arrest and hospitalization, the bedraggled, hardened Anna needs a respite; she decides to live with her estranged father on a coal barge in a New York City harbor. At rise, Chris is alerted by mail that Anna is arriving soon, but neither he nor the audience knows what to expect – we are told she is a nurse. Before exiting, he gives notice to his besotted slattern Marthy to evacuate the barge to make way for his daughter.

In walks the 20-year-old Anna. Her first line to the bartender elucidates O’Neill’s brilliance with character definition (and is well-known from the 1930 film of the same name as Greta Garbo’s foray into talkies): “Gimme a whiskey – ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.”

Anna_Christie20_web“Gimme” establishes lack of education and etiquette; “Whiskey” tells us this is no proper farm girl. “Ginger Ale” designates a lost youth; “Don’t be stingy” indicates that she has been taken advantage of; and “Baby” is a signpost that she knows how to coo to get what she needs from men.

As Anna, actress Jessica Love sits with splayed legs on a tavern chair, slams down some whiskey and bangs the empty glass upside down on a table with bravado. She personifies O’Neill’s description as a tall, fully-developed girl, handsome after a large, Viking-daughter fashion. But then she speaks in a monochromatic tone with none of the bitterness, rage, hatred, humor and world-weariness of Anna. Her bizarre, modern-sounding, almost flat delivery – whether she raises her voice or communicates in the slight Swedish accent called for by the script – disconcertingly remains the same for all four acts. It is right out of the Laura Linney school of acting, but with none of the bite – which would make Ms. Love better-suited to play Mary Ann Singleton from Tales of the City than Anna Christie.

Anna_Christie17_webIn the second half, she sheds real tears of pain, but they read as actress tears, not those of Anna. Ms. Love lacks the temperament for this role and even when she shouts, there is an odd lack of expressiveness. Later, when Chris begs forgiveness from Anna, Ms. Love says “No hard feelings” with such a centered quiescence that one feels compelled to rush the stage and shake the actress out of what seemed to be a Xanax-induced fog. At this moment in the play, Mr. O’Neill invites Anna to be “suspicious,” “dull,” “weary” and “wan.” Certainly, an actress can make her own choice, but vacant acceptance does not suffice and may sadly keep patrons from recommending what otherwise is a satisfactory piece.

Both Bill Buell as Chris and Kristine Nielsen as Marthy veer towards characterization, but it is an appropriate choice for the weathered seaman and his middle-aged concubine. As the man who consistently and humorously blames the “ole davil sea” for his ills, Mr. Buell is a joy to watch; his eyes positively twinkle with love or pale over with somber regret. This is a patient actor who actually has us believe that his memories have been dormant until the very moment of his recollections. Ms. Nielsen masterfully physicalizes the alcohol-soaked has-been mistress by shuffling and waddling; watching the woman slowly drag a chair across a room when she could easily have lifted it is priceless.

Austin Durant plays Mat Burke, the swarthy, demanding, powerful Irish sailor who takes refuge on the barge after a shipwreck and instantly falls in love with the ill-tempered Anna; it is Mr. Durant who so brings Anna Christie to life that his portrayal should be recorded for an “Acting O’Neill” instructional video. A blend of classicism, unpredictability, authority, and vulnerability makes his performance a Anna_Christie24_webwonder, especially given the little he is given from his co-star. Mr. Burke’s robust guttural brogue comes courtesy of this well-trained actor and dialect coach Jan Gist.

While Mr. Goldstein did not corral his actors into the same stylistic stable, his technical team defies superlatives. Wilson Chin’s set is a wonder of minimalism as it easily evoked a barroom and a barge at sea; among other great inventions is the figurative use of ropes as a doorway. The transition from tavern to fog-enshrouded barge was easily the most eloquent, artistic scene change in memory, aided by longshoremen who moved furniture away as if they were hauling a load. Denitsa Bliznakova’s costumes were so minutely detailed with rips and stains that one could almost smell the brine, sweat and alcohol of the characters. Austin R. Smith lit from below, the aisles and overhead, utilizing rusty, turn-of-the-century flood lights that barely spilt onto the audience which sat on all four sides of the stage; that’s quite an achievement.

Anna_Christie22_webAs for the casting of Ms. Love, one can look to Calleri Casting, who also cast The Recommendation at the Globe. The two weakest actors in that show and Ms. Love are all graduates of Juilliard. Are open calls too time-consuming and expensive? Or does the Globe feel uncomfortable using young talent that hasn’t somehow swept through New York? The Globe also has no official Artistic Director, but does Jack O’Brien, AD Emeritus, have no say? Or is it now the Artistic Director’s job to manage the company instead of overseeing artistic decisions? Once upon a time, there were producers who could walk in and say, “It’s my money and this kid ain’t working.”

Anna_Christie18_webOr maybe it was solely the director’s option to select an actress that had audience members actually riled at intermission and afterwards. After all, it was Mr. Goldstein who made the equally dumbfounding decision to incorporate the hugely incompatible song choice played between acts to illuminate Anna’s internal strife: Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.” Perhaps some lyrics are apt: “You know I’ve been to sea before; Crown and anchor me or let me sail away.” But “Acid, booze, and ass; Needles, guns, and grass,” makes director Goldstein’s implausible selection scandalous. I don’t need Joni to indicate what’s happening; I need the actress.

photos by Henry DiRocco

Anna Christie
Sheryl & Harvey White Theatre
The Old Globe in San Diego
ends on April 15, 2012
for tickets, call (619) 23-GLOBE or visit The Globe

{ 3 comments }

Michael L. March 21, 2012 at 10:40 pm

I can’t speak for the production but Jack O’Brien no longer lives in San Diego and does not have anything to do with running the Old Globe. His emeritus title is strictly a title. The Old Globe seems to cast all their shows in NYC instead of holding casting calls in Southern California- maybe they can save money and get better casts by casting locally.

Marc March 22, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Fantastic and beautifully-written review Tony! I whole-heartedly agree this production miscast the lead. Now, having seen how NOT to play Anna, I’d love to see a production do it right, and hopefully make me re-think my complete boredom of Act I (Act II really picked up for me), although, I gotta say, your breakdown of Anna’s opening line provides beautiful insight into her character (thank you for that!)

I also fully agree about the gorgeous scenic design and supporting performances, especially the sailor.

Okay, I’m off to go play some Joni Mitchell in tribute. “Needles, guns and grass?” How quaint.

Chris Huntley April 1, 2012 at 10:13 am

My wife and I saw Anna Christie last night, and both complained about Ms. Love’s performance the whole way home. Perhaps her performance would not have stuck out so sorely if she had not been accompanied by Buell and Durant, who were brilliant. We thoroughly enjoyed the emotion these two brought to the play, and the masterful delivery of very tough dialects. But I’m afraid Love was way out of her league here. Pity. It has great potential.

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