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Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie: Seafarers Caught in Strong Emotions

The setup:

Eugene O'Neill is one of the towering playwrights in American theater, and this play Anna Christie about seafaring men, and their women on shore, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, and a 2011 production in London won the Olivier Award as Best Revival. Despite its credentials, it is rarely produced, and Theatre Southwest is to be commended for bringing its raw power to Houston.

The execution:

The set is simple, outlined by ropes on stanchions suggesting both the sea and a prizefight ring, very suitable as O'Neill has given us characters who are at each other, hammer-and-tongs, fighting for their sense of self, to hold onto whatever fragments of identity remain to them. The flexible venue has been transformed into theater-in-the-round, and the deceptive bareness is soon overflowing with powerful emotions.

The play opens at a waterfront bar in New York City, with bartender Larry (Taylor Biltoft) serving drinks to Chris Christopherson (Carl Masterson) and his live-in girlfriend Marthy Owen (Barbara Dell), as they discuss a planned visit from Christopherson's daughter, Anna (Kelly Walker), whom he has not seen for two decades. Later scenes take place on the barge on which Christopherson lives.

The play's ongoing dynamic is confrontations, first between Chris and Marthy, then between Chris and Anna, then between Anna and Mat Burke (Brian Heaton), a shipwrecked sailor Chris rescues from sea, and finally between Chris and Mat. There is an unseen sixth character, the ocean itself, as O'Neill's passionate love/hate relationship with the sea infuses the play.

English is a second language for Chris, so his sometimes halting speech lacks eloquence, but this is more than made up by Mat, who is Irish and seems to have kissed the Blarney Stone, as his flow of words has the lilt of Irish music and the persuasive cadence of confidence. The growth of Mat's relationship with Anna is the heart, and soul, of the play, but Anna has some experiences in her past that may prove to be a deal-breaker.

Walker as Anna is magnificent, giving us toughness and vulnerability, often in the same passage, and providing the good looks the script demands. Heaton as Mat creates a human pulsing with vibrant life, fighting for happiness with determination and courage. And Masterson successfully captures the self-deception and timidity of Chris, though Chris's prejudices against the Irish, and his distrust of sailors like himself, can spark violence.

Dell as Marthy appears only in the first scene, but generates excitement in a vivid role, and Biltoft is excellent as Larry, listening as skillfully as he speaks. Lisa Schofield directed with intelligence and pace, and found the rhythm of the sea, and the throbbing insecurities and desperate human needs O'Neill has given us. She and Bob Maddox did the excellent set, Josh Baker designed the subtle and effective lighting, and Trevor B. Cone provided the sounds of the sea as needed. Costume design is by Malinda L. Beckham, and the outfits are appropriate and unobtrusive, as they should be - I especially liked Anna's traveling dress for her first entrance.

The power of the play lies in the strong emotions of the protagonists, and in the fact that happiness or despair may be at stake. What each is so desperately fighting for is well worth the battle, and we journey with them, caught up in their passions; it is a memorable theater experience.

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The production has streamlined the play a bit, without impairing it, and it might have been useful to change some of the "aint"s to "isn't"s, as what was frequently the vernacular of the underclass in the early 20th century now sticks out instead of being commonplace, as it was then. It wouldn't matter, except that it led some patrons to laugh at the wrong moments. There is ample humor in the play, placed there by O'Neill and brought to life by the actors, and the intensity of the highly-charged emotional scenes works better when their gravity is appreciated.

The verdict:

A powerful drama of seafarers is brought to stunning life, in a production with gifted actors that finds the beauty and soul in O'Neill's genius. Don't miss it.

Anna Christie continues through May 3 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. For information or ticketing, call 713-661-9505, or contact theatresouthwest.org.

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