Eugene O’Neill’s enthusiasm for that which flowed, be it the sea upon which he spent his early adulthood, or the drink that diluted the top and bottom generations of his family, propped up the arcs of many of his plays. In his Pulitzer Prize winning play Anna Christie, which premiered on Broadway in 1921, whiskey and the sea are symbiotic swindlers.
“It’s that funny way old devil sea do her worst dirty tricks.”
Director and founder of Brooklyn’s Working Barn Productions, Peter Richards, has put Anna Christie, currently playing at The Wild Project, within a set (designed by David M. Barber) that is inviting and mysterious. A bar and a barge sit comfortably against a painted backdrop of dark waters and faintly glowing boats. From up high, brass lamps hang from ropes. Alongside Mark Van Hare’s music and sound design and Moria Sine Clinton’s costumes, there is just the right amount of seafaring, spirit-laden atmosphere.
Swedish coal barge captain Chris Christopherson (Stephen D’Ambrose), who knows his way around a bar or two, is lonesome but for Marthy Owen (Tina Johnson), his straight-talking (“I ain’t been dragged up and born on the waterfront for nothing") barfly companion. In Manhattan’s sea port district at Johnny-The-Priest’s (Scott Aiello) bar, Chris tells Marthy of a letter he’s just received from his 20-year-old daughter Anna (Therese Plaehn) who is on her way to visit him. He hasn’t seen her since she was five years old. Since then, and after her mother died, Anna has been raised by cousins in Minnesota.
Anna, a troubled young woman with a past she holds responsible, makes quite the entrance. “Gimme a whiskey and ginger-ale on the side. And don’t be stingy baby.” A little later she says to Marthy, “I didn’t go wrong all in one jump.” There are clues along the way about those sullied jumps.
Anna moves onto her father's barge before taking up with Mat Burke (Ben Chase), a rough and tumble Irish seaman, rescued from a shipwreck and drawn inland by Anna’s beauty and innocence. Only she's not so innocent, at least not according to the unjust social conventions of the era. The two fall in love and after Chris and Mat fight over who gets to keep her company, Anna confronts them with a sorry tale of Minnesota rearing and her subsequent age-old profession, familiar to the two seamen in whatever port they’ve ever docked.
Plaehn has a strong stage presence and a breathy voice that gels with the O’Neill realism of the early '20s. Aiello and Johnson convince and amuse in their supporting roles while D’Ambrose plays beautifully - the softening of a man and the wistful regret caused by too many years avoiding accountability. Chase’s Irish accent often wanders too big an ocean and it appears to distract him from being altogether present in the most dramatic scenes. Towards the end of the play, there is too much demonstrative melodrama as the two men react to Anna’s confession, which raised titters from the audience. This aside, Richards' handling of Anna Christie's four scenes anchors a steady balance. Amid the brawling, boozing and lamenting into the foggy distance, O'Neill's wisecracks are more than welcome.