BWW Review: Intense ANNA CHRISTIE at Lyric Stage Company

BWW Review: Intense ANNA CHRISTIE at Lyric Stage Company

Anna Christie

Written by Eugene O'Neill, Adapted and Directed by Scott Edmiston; Scenic Design, Janie E. Howland; Costume Design, Charles Schoonmaker; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Composer/Sound Design, Dewey Dellay; Fight Choreographer, Jesse Hinson; Dialect Coach, Amelia Broome; Production Stage Manager, Diane McLean; Assistant Stage Manager, Geena M. Forristall

CAST (in alphabetical order): Nancy E. Carroll, Johnny Lee Davenport, Lindsey McWhorter, James R. Milord, Dan Whelton

Performances through May 6 at Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-585-5678 or

Director Scott Edmiston has to thank the guy who wrote a taut adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Anna Christie, thus positioning him to lead a seamless production which combines inventive stagecraft, stunning design elements, and a group of actors who seem born to their roles. The fact that Edmiston is that guy who Lyric Stage Company enlisted to adapt the play is a tribute to his depth of knowledge about O'Neill and his ability to stay true to the playwright's themes, while making the work both accessible and relevant to a modern audience.

For a play which premiered on Broadway in 1921, Anna Christie and its protagonist are notably feminist. Anna (Lindsey McWhorter) is a complex character who insists that she not be defined by her past, nor that her future be limited by boundaries and expectations imposed by her father or her lover. She is a young woman, yet far older than her twenty-five years would suggest. At the beginning of the play, she arrives in New York City to reunite with a father she has not seen in two decades, hoping that he can help give her a new life far removed from the one she left in the midwest. Chris Christopherson (Johnny Lee Davenport) is a wizened, weather-beaten seaman, who sees the world through the bottom of a shot glass and views his daughter's return as a chance for redemption and reconciliation.

Wary and world-weary, Anna is quick to recognize that Chris is no savior and barely keeps his own head above water. Despite the fact that Anna's arrival means she has to vacate the premises she shares with him, the tough-talking Marthy (Nancy E. Carroll) offers up a solid endorsement of the man's basic goodness, and Anna reluctantly takes up residence on her father's barge. When act two opens ten days later, Anna is a new woman, cleansed and revivified by the sea air and having dumped the ballast of the last ten years. She and her father are just getting used to each other and settling into their relationship when Irish sailor Mat Burke (Dan Whelton) washes up on their deck, rapidly rearranging the dynamics and sparking the play's dramatic conflict.

Believing that his lifelong bondage to "that ole devil sea" is responsible for everything that has happened to him, especially the dissolution of his family and his estrangement from Anna, Chris is adamant about wanting her to follow a different path, to end up with "a steady fella with a good job," not a sailor. For her part, Anna must decide whether or not she can make herself vulnerable to any man after all of the pain men have caused her, while Burke is challenged by never having known but one kind of woman in all of his travels. As the two grow closer, their budding romance unearths some inconvenient truths that cause a tsunami of emotions to wash over the trio.

The hallmark of Anna Christie is its raw intensity, a quality captured by Edmiston in both his adapting and directing, and propelled by the compelling performances he draws from Davenport, McWhorter, and Whelton. From the moment he creakily shuffles onstage, Davenport shows us a world of information about his character. His physical aches are noticeably displayed, but he bears the weight of his emotional pain with every step. Adding insult to injury, along comes Burke, the cocky and confident young man who reminds Chris of all that he used to be. Whelton revels in the role, but plumbs the depth of his character when Burke takes a sharp emotional turn. McWhorter transforms from the exhausted, jaded stranger to a cleansed, refreshed woman with hope, only to be forced to harden herself once again to outside forces. During that process, we see her realize that she has the power to determine the outcome by her will. Throughout the long and broad arc of Anna's journey, McWhorter is a revelation.

The performances do not take place in a vacuum, but are made all the more striking thanks to the world created for them by scenic designer Janie E. Howland, lighting designer Karen Perlow, and sound designer Dewey Dellay. The set constructed of wooden pallets easily serves as a saloon, as well as the deck of the barge, and eery blue/green lighting filtering through the slats suggests the waters below. Original music and nautical sounds complement the atmosphere. Charles Schoonmaker's costume design is evocative, and the contributions of fight choreographer Jesse Hinson and dialect coach Amelia Broome are effective.

Photo credit: Mark S. Howard (Johnny Lee Davenport, Lindsey McWhorter, Dan Whelton)

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