Veteran producer and director Bruce Grund has wanted to bring Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie to Ulster County for 20 years, he says. With a penchant for theatrical works that deal with controversial social issues – racism, sexism, alcoholism, drug and gun violence – he mounts productions that provoke as well as entertain audiences. His time for doing Anna Christie has come. Grund aptly sets the waterfront stage in an open-air pavilion on the Rondout Creek in Connelly to bring the romantic drama to life.
Written nearly 100 years ago, this revival of Anna Christie causes theatergoers to consider what has changed in the dynamics of relationship and what has not. The storyline is older than a mere century: the failures of parenting, a young woman turns to prostitution, men – young and old – struggle to justify their existence, a spark of promise in romantic love, unresolved pain up against all hope. We’ve heard this tale before.
When O’Neill turned his masterful talent towards addressing such issues in 1921, his work was rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and continued to be lauded into the 21st century. Now Grund and his adept cast of five characters have contemporized the play to “fit the Romantic and not-so-Romantic realism of today.”
With logistical changes like employing a female bartender and setting the action at a marina, rather than on a barge, to including finer details – a TV above the bar, the use of a cell phone – Anna Christie becomes recognizable to postmoderns who find themselves suddenly, painfully caught up in #MeToo considerations. Anna has left the farm where she was raised and abused by relatives, and she has escaped her fate as a prostitute when she shows up to find her father, Chris Christopherson, hoping to rest and recuperate and build a new life somehow.
“She meets a man who sees her in a different light because she keeps all this a secret. Eventually all hell breaks loose,” says Caitlin Connelly, who follows such greats at Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Celeste Holm and Uma Thurman in the role of Anna. “The story is still current. Though contemporized, we didn’t have to do much. It’s interesting that O’Neill’s choice was to have Anna Christie drive the action in the play – in this day and age, especially with the #MeToo movement – it’s very powerful and human. I think a lot of people can connect to the conflict of wanting to be the woman you are and being held back by misogyny and society in general, but also being able to find one’s self, to change and to forgive.
“A huge part of this is the sea and the fog that makes her clean again,” says Connelly. “She has this revelation before the love of her life enters the stage. The sea has brought him there. It’s a tumultuous relationship. She has so much painful history, and he, Matt Burke, has so much painful ignorance. But they’re both intensely passionate people. They’re as happy as two people in a realistic situation can be at the end. It’s not ‘riding off into the sunset.’ Uplifting or not, it is what it is, like real life.”
When asked if they have managed to project a future for their characters, John Lee – he plays the young sailor, Matt Burke – says, “O’Neill was criticized because this was his only play that had a ‘happy ending.’ I don’t think it does; I think it’s open-ended. It’s left to ‘Will the exact same history repeat itself with him and his wife?’ We all wonder what will happen, if love will endure and they’ll make the relationship work, or will it fall apart and he’ll just not come home.”
“When we discussed the #MeToo movement and the theme of an empowered woman taking control of her own life, there were original bits where Anna apologized for who she was,” Lee says. “What makes it more contemporary is that she asks me to accept who she is. That had to be okay with her and with me. I think that’s important.”
“It’s definitely the kind of show that has you asking these questions,” says Patricia Seholm, who tends bar as Lori, not Larry. “You leave talking to the person you came with about what that relationship will be. It’s my favorite kind of play: to leave with a conversation for the car. I’m a 20-something-year-old. I’m more drawn in by the message, the #MeToo, which is a big deal right now.”
Rich Wronkoski, who plays Anna’s recalcitrant father, Chris Christopherson, says, “I was surprised watching old television movies to find this character ‘Old Chris’ pop up in plays that had to do with the sea and ‘fellers’ on the sea in the bunkhouse or the coal-stoking room. It’s a lot of fun to be able to play a role like this.” The history of men being connected to the sea and the distress brought on by separation of husbands and wives are examined. “It’s a theme of family – dysfunctional family. They come together somehow in the fourth act, and you ask. ‘What is their future?’ What’s the future of any dysfunctional family? They choose to be together and move on, but you never know.”
None of the cast members have done Anna Christie before. When asked what is most compelling for each of them, Lee suggests that the romance is what will bring people out to see the play. “I think that the interpersonal dynamics, the family, all that stuff is very relatable.” Adele Calcavecchio is the salty Marthy, an aging, wharf-dwelling sometimes-love-interest who wears jeans instead of a “dingy calico skirt.” She says, “People I speak with are fascinated with the idea of doing Eugene O’Neill and with Bruce’s idea of doing it here on the waterfront. He’s famous for this kind of thing. It intrigues people.” Wronkoski agrees: “For me, Eugene O’Neill is the hook to bring people to this play. You don’t find Eugene O’Neill put on every other weekend anywhere.”
“I think O’Neill was 100 years ahead of his time,” says Grund. “So much is applicable for today.”
Wend your way across the Wurts Street Bridge and down the hillside to the Certified Marina for this timely production. Ye Olde Portside Inn restaurant and bar, recently opened at the Marina, will serve before, during intermissions and after the show.
A question-and-answer session immediately following the performance will give audience members the opportunity to express their own feelings and continue the conversation with the cast and producer. The second Friday performance on September 14 is a “Pay-What-You-Can” night. Seating is limited to 50 within the waterside pavilion, so reservations are highly recommended. Please note: Credit cards will not be accepted for the theater; only cash and checks.
Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, September 7-23, Friday/Saturday, 7 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m., $25/$20, Certified Marina Bar, 166 First Street, Connelly; (845) 473-4397, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/certified-marina-llc-388813394463751.