The enduring dramatic power of Eugene O'Neill steers “Anna Christie” at the Old Globe into waters both risky and impressive. O'Neill's 1921 Pulitzer Prize winner about a life-battered tart receives an intimate, audacious rethink, stewarded by director Daniel Goldstein.
O'Neill's narrative teems with evocative details. From Act 1's seedy bar on the waterfront of 1910-era New York City and thereafter, “Anna Christie” is richly atmospheric, its simple plot ebbing and flowing like “dat ole davil sea.”
That last is the refrain of Chris Christopherson (an inspired Bill Buell), the sodden Swedish mariner who learns early on that the daughter he dispatched to Minnesota relatives 15 years ago is returning. This entails ousting Marthy Owen (Kristine Nielsen), his wry, booze-soaked bedmate, which cues up the title character (Jessica Love, valiantly unconventional).
Hardly the angel of Chris' imagination, Anna's first scene with Marthy sets up the central dilemma. Can this damaged, man-hating prostitute warm up to the father she feels abandoned by? Can she put years of virtual slavery and worse from her Minnesota kin, behind her?
An answer, of sorts, arrives when Chris's coal barge assists a downed tramp steamer, and Anna pulls aboard Mat Burke (the superb Austin Durant), a raw-boned Irishman. Harlot and roughneck immediately clash, but attraction simmers beneath their back-and-forth. Chris balks at Anna coupling with a seaman, Mat is determined to marry her -- and then she confesses her sordid past, leading to a purposefully enigmatic ending.
Goldstein's staging deploys striking in-the-round tactics, especially designer Wilson Chin's terrific setting of tattered overhangs, wharf ropes and rusted metal flooring. which scores a coup when the saloon transforms amid copious dry ice into the barge. Austin R. Smith's rich lighting and Paul Peterson's omni-directional sound are pluses, although costumer Denitsa Bliznakova under-designs Anna's entrance outfit, which O'Neill describes as instantly identifiable hooker garb.
Purists may resist Love, who charts Anna with such anachronistic articulation as to initially suggest a slumming Vassar co-ed. That, like the insertion of Joni Mitchell's “Blue” at a key moment, is a deliberate directorial choice. This Anna is too intelligent to have gone on the stroll, and Love's deadpan comic timing and chemistry with Buell's affable, bombastic Chris and Durant's vivid, voracious Mat is fascinating and ultimately poignant.
You can imagine a more redolent, old school “Anna Christie,” but there's plenty to admire about the vitality on tap here.