If, for some reason, Eugene O'Neill had sold his script for "Anna Christie" to a soap opera in 1922, the show would still be on the air, probably at the beginning of Act III.
But while soap operas have always tended to stretch out their story lines, "Anna," now playing at Danville's Village Theatre as part of the annual Eugene O'Neill festival, doesn't need to. There is more meat in this drama than you'd find in a trainload of prime rib.
And with "Anna" marking one of O'Neill's first ventures into theatrical realism, it was a trailblazer for 20th century drama. The work includes a lot of what O'Neill had on his mind, from the nature of the sort of man who goes to sea to feminism to psychological dysfunction.
At the end of the Role Players' production of "Anna Christie," you are pleasantly exhausted and eager to talk about the show you just saw.
Director George Maguire and his strong cast of actors hit all the emotional high notes and nuances, as well as the humor (surprisingly, there's lots of it) that emerges from the beginning in Johnny the Priest's New York waterfront saloon, to the end, in Chris Christophersen's coal barge docked in Boston.
The play begins at the bar, where Chris (John Hale), is drinking and talking with his girlfriend, the bedraggled and pipe-smoking Marthy Owens (Sally Hogarty), about the arrival of Chris' daughter, the supposedly pure and spotless Anna Christophersen (Eden Neuendorf), who grew up on a farm surrounded by innocence and a pastoral setting rather than in the filth and violence of a life with a man who goes to sea.
But when Chris has gone out for a moment, Anna, now going by the name Annie Christie, shows up and soon lets Marthy know her life isn't exactly what her pop thinks it is.
Turns out she has a practical knowledge of booze, men, scraping by, and has worked in a house of ill-repute. She hated the farm life, where she was abused by cousins, among others in the family, and wishes she had lived instead in even the seamiest of wharf-side locals.
Eventually, she heads back to the coal barge where Chris lives, and father and daughter turn the vessel into home sweet home. That lasts until Anna rescues a stranded Irish sailor, Mat Burke (Josh Schell), and brings him to the below-deck home. This does not sit well with her father, a hard-line Swede who hates the Irish and anything that comes from the sea.
Anna finds herself falling in love with Mat and even thinks she might want to marry him, until Mat lays out his plans for her when they get married, which is for her to become a well-loved scullery slave, who obeys, without question, his every whim.
You can see O'Neill has taken some feminist bits from George Bernard Shaw's playbook. But much of what O'Neill has written remains quite relevant today, as do the bits of scenes that venture lightly into the psychology of guilt.
Hale does an excellent job as Chris, the raging papa who now has little control over what he loves. Neuendorf shines as Annie, a challenging role that requires her to be both sweet and sour to the point of acid. In fact she is most effective when she rages against the masculine machine. Schell is a fine actor who employs a number of talents to create a convincing character in Mat. And Hogarty shows a whole new side of her acting ability as Marthy, a Tugboat Annie type, who drinks like a striped bass and smokes a pipe. She is delightfully funny.
Contact Pat Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Eugene O'Neill, presented by Role Players Ensemble.
Through: Sept. 21
Where: Village Theatre, 233 Front St., Danville
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Tickets: $20 to $28, 925-314-3400, or www.roleplayersensemble.com