Eugene O'Neill

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O’Neill at the Crossroads: Anna Christie and Desire under the Elms

Reviewed by Norman Roessler


Anna Christie. Arena Stage (Kreeger Theater), Washington, D.C. May 25, 2005; Desire Under the Elms. American Repertory Theater (Loeb Stage), Cambridge, MA, May 26, 2005.

My usual “Crossroads” experience in the spring is to indulge my German Theater interests, but this spring I decided on hitting the rails of the Northeast Corridor in order to indulge my passion for O’Neill. The Arena Stage in D.C. offered Anna Christie and the A.R.T in Boston offered Desire Under the Elms concurrently, and from my home base of Philadelphia, I worked out a 48 hour Theaterblitzkrieg: Wednesday, 7:30 in D.C. followed by Thursday, 8 PM in Boston. Unfortunately, Amtrak doesn’t offer easy deals for the intrepid theatergoer and I ended up with a combination of Amtrak and NJ Transit tickets. The final tally in terms of a travel bill in this method is a bit too expensive to do on a regular basis, but doable with a bit a bit of expendable cash. For the trip, I brought along O’Neill’s Complete Plays and MacGowan / Jones Continental Stagecraft. One of the big benefits of doing the Theaterblitzkrieg by train is that one can operate between the text and the performance, both before and after, and I took full advantage of this aspect during my extended stays on the train. Of course, I did not have unlimited time, so besides a re-reading of Anna Christie and Desire under the Elms, I indulged my expressionistic streak and revisited The Hairy Ape and Emperor Jones and touched upon those chapters in Continental Stagecraft which most explicitly spoke to the divide between expressionism and realism, especially in the German context.

The Amtrak trip from Philadelphia to D.C. takes about two hours and costs ca. $100 for a round-trip fare. Once in Union Station, the Arena Stage is a very short Metro trip with one transfer. All in all, one can quickly get down to D.C. and to the respective theater; the only drawback is the lack of a late (11 PM) train to return on the same day, and so one is compelled to search for lodging, and so I exploited the hospitality of an old friend. The Arena Stage has two theaters and Anna Christie was set for the Kreeger stage, which is a modern, comfortable amphitheater with orchestra and balcony seating. The audience attending the show, with the usual high ticket prices, was old, well-dressed, dull, bourgeois, and almost entirely white. Not good tidings. In fact, the audience was emblematic of the museum piece to come.

Two sets were used – Act I took place in Johnny-the-Priest’s saloon and the rest of the play took place on Chris Christoferson’s coal barge. The sets were traditionally realistic and were wonderful to look at. One admired the craftsmanship that depicted the saloon and the barge, as well as the blue-lit background which constantly evoked the sea and fog. Yet for all the craftsmanship and short-term allure, the sets did not add to the play nor force the actors to any deeper level of performance. The sets were no more than museum pieces, and I found this disappointing and incomprehensible. Anna Christie is not one of O’Neill’s great plays, but it is one of his more popular ones, which has enjoyed numerous stage and cinematic adaptations. It has become a part of American performance culture in an essential way – when one reads it, one sees the traces of Tennessee Williams and countless Hollywood films. One definitely feels its American DNA; at the same time, such a quintessential feel is also a very dangerous prospect. When the audience intuitively knows the major contours of the story and the characterizations, the play can very easily lose its critical edge. Moreover, Anna Christie, like much of O’Neill, has that melodramatic element which after so many adaptations is not just boring but also farcical. So, Anna Christie in my opinion seems a primary forum in order to re-interpret O’Neill, if not a deconstruction. I have seen such a treatment in German Theater of O’Neill, Miller, and Ibsen and the results have been stunning, and have in the process re-invented and re-inspired one to go back to the theater. Historically, too, Anna Christie seems a dramatic work with the potential to go in new directions. The original Anna Christie premiered on Broadway in 1921, with Robert Edmond Jones as the set designer, a period when O’Neill had already turned to a more expressionistic aesthetic. Why not bring more of this aesthetic to bear? This is the most depressing quality of American Performance Culture – its emphasis on fourth-wall realism and its museum-reverence for its own classics.

Sara Surrey as Anna Shristie

With the set design offering little more than eye candy, the burden of the production fell squarely on the actors and the director. Chris Christoferson was played by Kevin Tighe, who has enjoyed a long and solid career on stage and screen. Tighe has never ventured far from the stage even as he has paid the bills with TV and film roles (Emergency! (TV show, 1972-77); Matewan, 1987; Roadhouse, 1989), so it was not surprising that he turned in a very solid performance. Still, it is important to note that in contrast to many film actors who trod the stage, Tighe has not been castrated by the camera lens, and still knows how to project voice and body on the stage; and perhaps most importantly, act the role and not play a celebrity acting the role. Tighe’s Christopherson, was ably built up from voice, visage, and movement, and as a result, Tighe forcefully projected Christopherson as an old sea dog with touches of sadness, humor, and love. Tighe’s performance was ably matched by Anne Scurria, who played Marthy Owen, Christopherson’s equally salty companion in old age. Dan Snook assayed Mat Burke and projected a strong, animal magnetism, especially when attired in overalls with no t-shirt. These three main actors along with the rest of the ensemble delivered very competent, and at times, moving performances. However, Sara Surrey’s characterization of Anna Christopherson seemed off-key. On the one hand she overplayed the whore character and created a parody in the line of Mae West; on the other hand, she played Anna as a very nervous and brittle person. Consistency would have helped, but most disconcerting was that the performance never moved beyond of the stereotype, whore-with-a heart –of –gold, that permeates American performance culture.

Dan Snook (Mat Burke), Sara Surrey (Anna, Kevin Tighe (Chris Christopherson)

Of course, much of this critique could be located in O’Neill’s playscript. Yet, the director seemed to emphasize all the weaknesses of the playscript. It played the melodrama straight, or allowed it to play out as comedy. At times the courtship between Mat and Anna seemed like something out of an Andy Hardy film. Perhaps my critique is too heavy. Like many who enjoy O’Neill I like to push for the tragic and expressionistic elements and at the same time wouldn’t mind a touch of Brechtian epic theater. So, I try to temper my criticism. But what bothered me so much about the production was not its emphasis on melodrama and humor, but the fact that it just didn’t matter. It could easily have been presented as a stage reading – there was no need to actually go through with the production. I sadly came to this realization before intermission, and hence during the subsequent second act, I found my body and mind wandering. I walked around behind the spectator area, experimented with different sight lines and eventually found myself looking at pictures of old productions on the wall. What a lonely place a theater house is when everything is directed toward the stage! As I walked, the theater of my mind played out, and in a postmodern craze the combined vision of Kevin Tighe as his character from the Emergency TV show (yes, he was a solid family man in contrast to his partner Johnny Gage, but didn’t he have the hots for sexy nurse, Dixie McCall?) and his character from Roadhouse with Patrick Swayze (they actually made a stage version of this film in NYC!) imprinted itself. Thank God, the Doors’ single “Roadhouse Blues” penetrated this nefarious vision: “Let it roll, baby, roll.... All night long!” 

The next morning I found myself on the Amtrak to Philly, where I transferred to NJ Transit en route to New York, in order to save a bit of money, and then again on Amtrak to Boston. A long train ride, but an excellent way to take a romantic journey and forget about the exigencies of modern existence; not to mention a great way to meditate upon Anna Christie and O’Neill. I immediately reached for Continental Stagecraft. Similar to other great theater reflections such as Lessing’s Hamburgische Dramaturgie, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, and Brecht’s Der Messingkauf, the text by MacGowan and Jones constructs a dialogue about theater through the literal or metaphorical idea of travel (Ok, maybe I’m pushing the Lessing connection here, but I had to cite the text). As I opened Chapter 1, entitled “Beyond Realism” I was met with the following statement: “Then we come to Realism and its quagmires – quagmires of balked creation and quagmires of discussion – and we wallow about gesticulating and shouting and splashing the mud into our immortal eyes. What is this bog we have been so busy in?” You said it brothers! As I read on, MacGowan and Jones seemed to touch upon every weakness of the Arena Stage production. I then took up O’Neill’s text again and perused it: yes, it presented a straightjacket of sorts, especially for the musealist, but still symbolic and expressionistic elements seemed present for a better production.

I arrived in Boston and found the A.R.T with one simple, yet surprisingly long subway ride. As I entered the theater house, I couldn’t help but suppress a bit of a laugh as I contrasted the theater’s great dramatic reputation with its humble and very university theater-type lodgings. In the foyer to the stage, Robert Brustein was signing copies of his new book. I briefly thought about stopping by, but didn’t need any theater criticism besides my own for the evening.

The first thing I noticed when I entered the auditorium was the sound of crunching under my feet. Ha Ha! the stage began the moment one stepped in the door: gravel stones extending from the doorway to the back of the stage. OK, now we’re talking about a potentially good production!  Like Arena’s Kreeger Stage, the A.R.T’s Loeb Stage was a comfortable amphitheater, however, with no balcony seating. The audience was oldish as usual, but with enough young and early middle-aged people to grant a notion of vitality. The stage had been opened up completely, exposing the back wall of the theater house, creating a huge and deep performance expanse. As already stated, the red-brown gravel extended across the whole stage. The Cabot house was rendered as a facade only, raised and inverted inward. Emphasizing the hard bleakness of the land beyond the infinite gravel, were several mounds of larger stones, one large rock, an old wreck of a car, a mattress and rocking chair, and of course, elm trees. The elm trees, like the house, were understated: only two large trees were designated deep stage left. The set was designed by Riccardo Hernandez and despite my longings for a greater evocation of the house, was a wonderful construction which invited a daring performance interpretation. Director János Szász and the rest of the production team, Christopher Akerlind (lighting), David Remedios (sound), and Doug Elkins (movement) attempted to realize the demands of this stage. Szász admitted in the theater program to an “epic” quality of the play, and like the stage, he emptied out most of the representational elements and invited the actors to explore the symbolic and emotional intensity of the play. The lighting design did not bring this interpretative gesture out in any bold way, but the sound design did impressively engage this element. Drawing on industrial-techno music, David Remidios succeeded in creating a dissonant music, which according to the Szász, “sounds like ghosts trying to speak through the earth.” Also, one must not forget the acoustic element created by the open stage and its gravel-strewn floor. Throughout the production one never missed the idea of crushing hardness.

Raymond J. Barry (Ephraim Cabot)

In creating such an open aural and physical space, Szász was definitely moving toward a more operatic style, or as he stated, “something more balletic and poetic.” This interpretative vision was quite ambitious, and unfortunately was not equaled by the actors on the stage. The stage and interpretative vision, for want of a better phrase, overwhelmed the ensemble, with perhaps the exception of Raymond J. Berry as Ephraim Cabot. Obviously, the director desired such an effect, but the ensemble’s performance never quite harmonized with the stage design, either in a dissonant or consonant way. Instead of existential angst, the actors seemed merely uncomfortable onstage, either fidgeting too much or standing uncomfortably like a statue.

Shawtane Monroe Bowen (Simeon Cabot), Peter Cambor (Peter), and Mickey Solis (Eben Cabot)

Along with Raymond J. Berry, Shawtane Monroe Bowen and Peter Cambor assayed the respective roles of the elder brothers, Simeon and Peter, while Mickey Solis and Amelia Campbell performed the lead roles of Eben Cabot and Abbie Putnam. Wearing a leather trench coat, jeans, and a cowboy hat, Berry’s Ephraim portrayed a vigorous and athletic older man, who was still in word and deed able to overwhelm his sons. Alone among the ensemble, he seemed able to perform to the ascetic and poetic rigor of the production. In contrast, the two lovers never really initiated any real passion onstage, and played at best on a melodramatic level. Solis’ Eben seemed a bit too forlorn and out of sorts. Campbell’s Abbie seemed particularly off key (just like Sara Surrey’s Anna at the Arena Stage). Wearing a blue lamé mini-skirt and knee pads (presumably to cushion against the hard gravel), the blond –haired actress exuded all of the hardness of Abbie, but little of the sensuality.

In the end, I was happy enough to see Desire, and to explore the director’s interpretation; yet felt like the production didn’t quite deliver the goods. American Theater needs O’Neill, but the American Stage just does not seem to know what to do with O’Neill at the beginning of the 21st Century.

After the show, I bunked down with my in-laws for the evening. Waking the next day, I got back on the Amtrak train headed for Philadelphia. Saturated with O’Neill over the last 48 hours I left him alone for the most part and tended to my own reflections. But O’Neill needs to be pursued on the American Stage as well as the International Stage and I wondered where the next O’Neill production would take me, and what play I would encounter. Could one ever hope for The Great God Brown or Lazarus Laughed?

Norm Roessler is a Lecturer in the Intellectual Heritage Program and German Studies Program at Temple University. He has published numerous theater reviews of productions in Germany and America.


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