Language was a potent instrument for American playwright Eugene O’Neill. Looking back 93 years, the instrument O’Neill used in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1920 drama, "Anna Christie," seems stilted, archaic, stiff.
Put that instrument in the mouths of skilled actors, however, and it is anything but archaic and stilted. So says David Auburn, who has wanted to direct "Anna Christie" for several years. He’s getting his wish now with a production at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzpatrick Mainstage, where the show officially opens Saturday night at 8 after nearly a week of previews.
A revision of an earlier play, "Chris Christopherson," which O’Neill wrote in 1910, "Anna Christie" is about what happens when a young woman tries to turn around her life as a prostitute, re-establish ties with her father, a barge captain, whom she hasn’t seen since childhood, and entertain the prospect of love with a young seaman who wants to marry her and who, like her father, has no idea about her past.
"Anna Christie" is a far cry from the later brooding marathon pieces for which O’Neill is more commonly known -- "Strange Interlude," "Long Day’s Journey Into Night," "The Iceman Cometh" chief among them. "Anna Christie’s" dramatic line is cleaner, easier to track and the story unfolds in only roughly two hours.
Acknowledging the somewhat stilted texture of the play’s dialogue, especially the elder Chris’ dialect, on the the printed page, Auburn says O’Neill’s words come vibrantly alive on stage.
"O’Neill spent time at sea. He knew these men.This is how they spoke," Auburn said during a telephone interview.
"Theatrically it’s very exciting. O’Neill knew his audiences. He knew how to tell a ripping tale on stage in only two hours."
"It really can seem dated, like melodrama, on the page," Brooksher said by telephone in a separate interview. "It’s the kind of role a lot of actresses have on their list of to-do roles but, frankly, it wasn’t on my radar. And reading it scared me to death.
"I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to get into this character. I’m at a very good place in my life. I have a very good relationship with my parents. I’m engaged. There’s nothing in my life I can pull from and it seemed melodramatic so I was concerned about making the character work."
Auburn persuaded her otherwise. She took the plunge.
"I just trusted David’s take on the play," Brooksher said, "and by our fourth reading I was beginning to find the humor in her, in the play."
Perhaps the biggest revelation in Auburn and Brooksher’s take on Anna is her emergence as a strong woman who owns her past and makes a courageous decision to tell her father, Chris (played by James Hogan) and her suitor, Matt (played by Derek Wilson), the unvarnished truth about her life.
"She makes a very human journey," Brooksher said. "What we see is a woman who, all along her way, makes her own choices, even becoming a prostitute, a tragic choice but a choice she made, given her circumstances, to give her power over her life.
"She has the power to live independently and you can certainly empathize with the idea of Anna wanting more power over her life.
"It’s a huge arc; like some (gigantic) rollercoaster and once you’re on it you just go with it."