BWW Reviews: Odyssey Theatre Ensemble Presents ANNA CHRISTIE as a Total Sensory Experience

Every once in awhile I am blown away by an innovative and excitingly creative theatrical production which surprises me both physically and emotionally. Such was the case when I experienced Eugene O'Neill's ANNA CHRISTIE at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. The incredible cast stars Zoe Perry alongside her real-life father, Scandal's Jeff Perry, and Grey's Anatomy's Kevin McKidd as the play's trio of iconic characters who create an explosive mix, each struggling for salvation.

Set in 1910, O'Neill's 1922 Pulitzer Prize winner presents a realistic and painful exploration of family conflict and the harsh reality of women's lives in the early part of the twentieth century. His classic ANNA CHRISTIE is surprisingly contemporary, crackling with fierce physicality, humor and drama. After a 20-year separation, a coal barge captain is reunited with the daughter he unknowingly abandoned to a life of hardship, a woman with limited choices whose dreams have been shattered. When Anna falls in love with a wayward sailor who literally jumps out of the sea onto the barge and into her heart, certain secrets about her past come to light as their relationship depends over the course of just two weeks.

Certainly women today still deal with the issues of trying to live up to what your father expects you to be, even if he has been absent from your life. When Anna (Zoe Perry) arrives at Johnny-the-Priest's saloon near the waterfront in New York searching out her father, she meets local barfly (and her father's current playmate) Marthy Owen (Mary Mara) who sympathizes with Anna's need to re-define herself and their lot as women. These two are cut from the same cloth, at the mercy of men to take care of them no matter what the personal cost. At least Marthy seems to be enjoying herself, modest though her life is, as it appears as long as the rugged bartender (Tait Ruppert) keeps bringing on the suds someone else pays for, she is as happy as a clam.

When Marthy discovers Anna is indeed the daughter Chris (Joe Perry) has been expecting, even though she sees the writing on the wall and will have to leave the barge so Anna can move in with her father), Marthy can't wait to relate the news to him and then quickly bids him a fond farewell. Her waterfront life surely will just move on to the next lonely sailor to hit port.

Father and daughter are basically strangers when they meet, Chris having left his native Sweden when Anna was a baby - never to return. Both father and daughter agree that sailors are a strange lot, never feeling truly at home unless on the sea. Yet somehow they find women to marry them and have their children even though they are rarely at home.

What Chris learns about Anna's life and the hardships she has faced for the past 20 years until turning up on his "doorstep" shakes his spirit to the bone and he vows to make things right with her. That is until one night when a shipwrecked Irish sailor named Mat (Kevin McKid) literally pops out of the sea and challenges both Anna and Chris to see their lives in ways they never expected. The modern push-pull nature of Anna and Mat's love affair certainly seems more modern than what O'Neill imagined took place in 1910, or is it that men and women have always been and will always be the same when it comes to animal attraction?

This is one of the finest pieces of theater I have ever seen - superb acting, direction, lighting, and a set which includes lots of water surrounding the raised, central rectangular stage. Moving in and out of scenes on the waterfront is the mysterious fog that creates both moods of terror and romance, perfectly reenacted by the cast. Former Long Wharf associate artistic director Kim Rubinstein has inspired the ensemble to engulf themselves in both their characters and the environment, making the entire theatrical experience emotionally enveloping.

"It's kind of spectacular that O'Neill wrote this nearly 95 years ago," says Rubinstein. "It's the story of a strong, independent woman who is a victim of abuse and forced into a life of degradation by her circumstances, and of two men who come to understand and recognize their own culpability in her plight and are transformed by that. It's very passionate, and layers and layers deep."

Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) is revered as the father of modern American playwriting and stood as a trailblazer for later artists such as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. ANNA CHRISTIE debuted on Broadway at the Vanderbilt Theatre on November 2, 1921, garnering O'Neill's second of four Pulitzer Prizes. A 1993 Broadway revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company was the recipient of both Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Revival, and a 2003 revival at London's Donmar Warehouse was honored with the Olivier Award. ANNA CHRISTIE was successfully adapted to the screen three times; the second version starred Greta Garbo and is considered by film critics to be one of Hollywood's finest motion pictures.

Now you can see one of the finest theatrical productions to hit the boards in Los Angeles by heading over to the Odyssey Theatre in West LA to experience a real theatrical treat for all your senses! Thank goodness Beth Hogan did not shy away from producing another spectacular show with water onstage, something she says she swore she would never do again.

Performances of ANNA CHRISTIE take place three times a week, on Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm and Sundays at 2pm through March 8. Tickets to all performances are $34.99; students with valid ID and members of Equity/SAG/AFTRA can purchase tickets for $20 to Saturday matinee performances. The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, 90025. For reservations and information, call (310) 477-2055 or go to www.OdysseyTheatre.com.

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From This Author Shari Barrett

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