I'm not the greatest fan of Eugene O'Neill. Even for his time, he was old-fashioned, particularly in his views on women. By the time ANNA Christie was written in 1921, George Bernard Shaw, among others, had deflated the myth of the whore who either had to die or come under men's domination. And Ibsen had shown the ways in which women deserved empowerment in or out of marriage. O'Neill was never much of a thinker and, for all his interest in modernist theatrical technique, always lacked the critical intelligence to be a great playwright.
O'Neill's Anna is a victim of circumstance. Abandoned by her father at an early age and thrown onto a midwestern farm where she was sexually abused as a teenager, Anna sought freedom through prostitution. When we first meet her, she has been very ill (Camille-like consumption?) and has come to reunite with her father. She hates men -- for good reason. Her father is a sentimental old drunk who is delighted to have his good little daugher back. At sea (her father takes her onto his barge) she falls in love with Matt, an Irish sailor who seeks refuge on their barge after a shipwreck. His entrance and meeting with Anna is high romance. The one great scene in the play is the one in which Anna refuses to marry Matt, bitterly confesses about her past and stoically accepts her situation. Unfortunately O'Neill gives us a final act in which father and lover reconcile and Anna decides to keep house for these two sailors who will usually be at sea. Why? As usually with O'Neill the play is repetitive and the dialogue clunky.
The attraction of this fine production by Rob Ashford, who makes the most of the play's few virtues and manages to mask its deficits, is the starry cast headed by the magnetic Ruth Wilson and Jude Law. They are both brilliant. If Wilson had been a young woman in the 1940s, she would have been a Hollywood film noir star a la Gloria Grahame or Veronica Lake. She has an odd, pouty face and a husky voice On stage or on screen, one cannot take ones eyes off of her. She makes the most of Anna. Jude Law is equally charismatic as Matt, the Irish sailor who falls in love with her, but is horrified at her past. His extrovert physicality is a complement to her simmering intensity. They make the play worth seeing.
ANNA CHRISTIE, Donmar Warehouse. August 10, 2011.