STOCKBRIDGE — “Anna Christie” has the familiar totems of Eugene O’Neill’s work. There’s the dingy seaport saloon, the omnipresent fog, the characters’ vain attempts to escape the suffocating influence of the past while inevitably doomed to repeat it.
O’Neill hadn’t yet internalized the form of classical Greek drama in this 1921 play, as he would later. But there’s the sense that the wheel of fate is spinning in the background somewhere, out of anybody’s control. And things aren’t going to turn out well.
Amid the foreboding, any good production must convince the audience that these characters really could escape the sum of their bad behaviors — or a tragic arc sketched centuries ago by Aeschylus.
So when a performance is as vividly realized as this one is, the triumph is especially potent.
Though it steps on its own feet a bit, this production at Berkshire Theatre Group is propelled by a remarkable central performance, and hits most of O’Neill’s mythic markers while feeling as true and spontaneous as a bracing burst of sea air.
In the title role — Anna Christie is a cynical, hard-bitten, 20-year-old prostitute — Rebecca Brooksher is magnetic. She delivers the best sort of virtuosic performance, one that never calls attention to itself but instead feels effortless, even inevitable. Brooksher finds unexpected humor in her character’s sarcastic asides, and when Anna angrily wields the facts of her past as a bludgeon to hurt those around her, we feel nothing but empathy. She’s earned the respect of a survivor.
Director David Auburn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, trimmed the play’s 13 characters down to five, two of whom are done for the night after an expository opening scene that drags a bit here.
In a dingy New York City bar, a lifelong seaman and aging drunkard named Chris Christopherson gets word his daughter Anna, who he hasn’t seen in 15 years, is on her way to visit him. Chris, rendered by Jonathan Hogan in a portrayal that never quite congeals, had sent her inland to live with cousins in Minnesota after her mother died, convinced she’d be safe there from the tricks of the “ole devil sea,” as he calls it. She instead found physical abuse and rape, and took to a life on the streets. Her willfully ignorant father believes she’s a nurse.
Always looming, the sea is presented as a source of constant physical and emotional violence. Indeed, this play is essentially about self-perpetuating cycles of abuse — physical, mental, and sexual — but Auburn seems uninterested in teasing out the Freudian nuggets O’Neill scattered through the text.
Most of the action unfolds aboard Chris’s coal barge, where a shipwrecked sailor is almost literally spit onto the deck from the sea. He promptly takes Anna for a fine lady — certainly not “the like of them cows on the waterfront,” as he indelicately puts it — and woos her. Chris desperately wants to prevent his daughter from becoming the lonely spouse of a carousing, perpetually absent sailor — as was her mother, and all the women in the family, as far back as anyone can remember.
Derek Wilson is fully convincing as Mat Burke, the strapping Irish sailor/suitor. The rhythms of the pair’s first encounter are paced just right. As he ping-pongs from boastful swagger to bashful deference, we too see the charisma Anna finds beneath his rough exterior.
A whiff of her future as a sailor’s wife is an instant draw for Anna, who spies in it a chance to find, perhaps, her inevitable place in the world. “It’s like I’d come home after a long visit away some place,” she says on her first visit to the barge. “It all seems like I’d been here before lots of times — on boats — in this same fog.”
Scenic designer R. Michael Miller deliberately narrows the playing space, creating a claustrophobic air. This choice may contribute to the sometimes awkward nature of the blocking, with sightlines obscured at certain key moments. Some curious staging choices in the final scene also increase that sense of remove. Scott Killian’s somber original music and Ann G. Wrightson’s nondescript lighting design are unobtrusive but do little to support the sense of place.
Auburn finds a haunting tone in the play’s joyless but nominally happy ending. As the central trio settles on a resolution that immediately starts springing leaks, Anna falls back into the slippery, streetwise cadence of her first scene. She seals a family truce with a gulp of whiskey and a wary glance that hides creeping desperation.
Shortly before, she insists to her father they can’t escape the roles they’ve been cast in by fate. “You ain’t to blame,” she assures him. “You’re just what you are — like me.”
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremyd