Our Theatre company Spleen Theatre recently completed our second full production a site-specific Anna Christie by Eugene O'Neil on the Lehigh Valley Barge #79 in Redhook, Brooklyn. The Lehigh is an early 20th-century coal barge that worked the Hudson Valley River. It was abandoned but has since been reclaimed and functions now as a gorgeous museum and performing space. The locale boasts views of The Statue of Liberty and the shipping traffic through the four, eight foot tall doors that stayed open during the performance. We are already working on developing our third production...
Red Hook Star Revue:
Last weekend to catch Anna ChristieÂ
by Brian ClancyÂ
Eugene O'Neill won the Pulitzer Prize for the second time with this drama, Anna Christie, about a former prostitute seeking one last refuge in the father who abandoned her as a child. The fact that the newly formed Spleen Theatre Company has chosen his piece as their second production speaks volumes as to the type of work they want to present. The Lehigh Valley #79 Barge docked at the end of Conover Street in Red Hook is the perfect setting. Although many attribute Manhattan's South Street Seaport at the turn of the century as the most probable location that influenced O'Neill in the setting of Anna Christie. It could just as well have been the docks of Red Hook. And of course Modern day South Street Seaport could never be mistaken as New York docklands circa 1910 whereas Red Hook has retained an old world feel.
The plot of Anna Christie is basic enough. The titular character was abandoned as a child by her father after her mother death. Anna is making one last ditch effort to turn her life around after abuse in her formative years by her relatives on the farm where she was forced to labor in Minnesota. At her lowest point, she turned to prostitution. Now she is seeking redemption and a new start in her father, Old Chris Christopherson, simply because she has nowhere left to turn. Anna believes in the possibility that the sea will cleanse away her unsavory past profession. We are set up for a steady drama of reconciliation between father and daughter. Enter Mat Burke, the Irish stoker who Anna and Chris Christopherson rescue from a shipwreck while traveling up the East coast to Boston. Anna now finds herself having to finally confront her former life to achieve the fresh start she craves. Psychological underpinnings of the principal characters are what create the drama. Chris Christopherson is aware of his failings in life particularly towards his only living relative, his daughter and his protestations that the Ole Devil Sea? is responsible become weaker as he loses conviction of his innocence as the play progresses. Mat Burke's faces his Catholic ethos being undermined as he realizes he can't deny his love for a woman of ill repute. Anna finds she can't hide from the guilt of her former life.
The real triumph of Spleen Theatre's production however is that the audience genuinely feels transported to the time and place. They believe they are on a pier somewhere on America's East Coast a century ago. There is a constant reference that circumstances are outside of the characters control, that they are at the mercy of the Ole Devil Sea. This would be an absent spectra in a conventional theater. Here, the sea is visible through the open doors of the barge in this site-specific piece. The sea is always present for the audience. Staging Anna Christie on the Lehigh Valley #79 barge is an inspired choice by Spleen Theatre Company. The play opens in Johnny the Priest's bar and of course with Sunny's bar visible from the barge, I imagined that I was there. The excellent musicians made the transitions between settings clean and seamless while setting the right mode for the play. I easily accepted that I was in a bar populated by live musicians and rowdy drunken longshoremen and later, a quiet and lonely barge with just the sound of the sea's ebb and flow. I found myself docked in New York then Provincetown and finally Boston. The actors engaged me fully throughout in a play that was expertly directed. The only thing that briefly broke the illusion was a passing helicopter. Of course, this was something entirely outside the company's control.
The performances of the ensemble were top notch from a well-accomplished cast. Rahaleh Nassri (Anna) portrayed a woman shaped by harsh circumstances whose strength is shown most acutely in her willingness to be weak in the arms of the right man. Nassri achieved both the strength and vulnerability of the O Neill's heroine. John O'Creagh (Old Chris Christopherson), a man finally admitting to his failings and trying to finally make amends, was pitch perfect. Gene Gillette's (Burke) delivery had the lyrical speech rhythms of a character straight out of John Millington Synge's Playboy of the Western World. In fact at times I wondered was I looking at a Synge or O'Neill play. In subsequent research I found that O'Neill was heavily influenced by Synge and Ireland's Abbey Theatre at this time. This company seems to have delved into the very possible nuance O'Neill set in the play.
Laura Tesman has directed an excellent revival of an American classic. I applaud the company choice in making this a site-specific production. The company's biggest challenge may be getting a regular theater attending public to make the trip to Red Hook. I just hope the residents of Red Hook realize that they have a fine play on their doorstep.
Anna Christie plays at 7pm on September 21 and 23 at the Lehigh Barge, right near the auxiliary Fairway Parking lot. or seating.Â t.