In the Petrified Forest
EARLIER THIS YEAR, the Jungle Theater's production of Long Day's Journey into Night had the sobering effect of reminding us all how quickly Eugene O'Neill's work is becoming fossilized. Indeed, most of O'Neill's plays assume a culture of festering repression and denial, an assumption that proves handy when it comes time for his characters to reveal the ugly, shocking "truth" that has driven them to the brink.
Little did O'Neill know that America would become a roiling cesspool of psychoanalysis and self-revelation, with one half of the nation confessing its sins while the other half listens. Or that his anguished depictions of abuse and addiction would eventually seem almost quaint.
Like Long Day's Journey, O'Neill's Anna Christie, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, is well on its way to becoming a historical artifact. But it is one that Jason McLean's Loring Playhouse has resurrected with remarkable attention to detail and a rather charming reverence for the subject matter, in this case, childhood sexual abuse and neglect.
Anna (played by Lola Lesheim) is a world-weary 20-year-old whose dad abandoned her when she was five. Exhausted by her troubled life, she travels to New York to reconnect with her father (Paul Smith), who pilots a coal barge. She soon angers her father by falling in love with a seafaring scalawag (Peter Colburn), and strikes a blow for self-assertion when father and suitor--both unrepentant drunks--insist on fighting over her.
Part of what makes Anna Christie seem antiquated is the language. First-generation immigrants all, the characters speak in an international stew of dialects. When Anna's father says, "Dat ol' sea, she ain't God," it comes out in a musical Swedish mumble; as Anna's boyfriend, Colburn spews fabulously incomprehensible streams of Irish invective; and as Anna, Lesheim's odd, unplaceable accent sounds like a cross between Ingrid Bergman in Ninotchka and Bullwinkle's Natasha.
Fortunately, everyone in this production finds ways to rise above the hokiness of their dialogue. With her Sharon Stone-like good looks, Lesheim makes for an intriguing Anna. At once beautiful and damaged, Lesheim's Anna is a fetching woman who has learned to hide her pain by talking tough and, like everyone else in O'Neill-land, drinking heavily. Underneath it all she is a wounded child, though, and Lesheim allows us to see that vulnerability with aching clarity.
Jason McLean's direction goes a bit overboard in the melodramatic finale, but, all things considered, he must be commended for making Anna Christie look even halfway believable. Part of the magic is in the set, which features a lifelike coal barge and a dingy longshoreman's bar. The audience members have to walk across a pier over a black expanse of water just to get to their seats. But once there, the fog on that "devil sea" engulfs the coal barge, and you can feel the truth closing in on the characters like a fist.
THE EFFECT OF trauma on an individual's life is also the subject of Luu Pham's In the Petrified Forest, the second entry in Cheap Theatre's 1997 New Play Series. In Pham's case, however, the trauma in question has been caused by the Vietnam war, and the person affected by it is an aging Vietnamese cellist who, in the process of composing a piece to play for her first public performance in 30 years, relives the war experience through the eyes of her parents.
Part memoir told in flashbacks, part war memorial, and part meditation on the importance of art in life, the overall tone of In the Petrified Forest is as reserved as Anna Christie is histrionic. The Vietnam War destroyed Madame Trinh's (Kari Holmberg) family, but time has turned her anger into melancholy. Evidently, the angriest thing she has ever done in her life is quit playing the cello.
When Pham's characters wax philosophical about art and life, they tend to toss around some ridiculously inflated language, but Pham's impulse to reach for such lofty rhetorical heights is part of a larger, more commendable ambition--one rarely seen in new plays nowadays. For attempting to connect 60 years of history through the life of a single character, In the Petrified Forest deserves some note.
As with most new plays, it is riddled with small flaws, and the acting in Cheap Theatre's production is uneven at best, but one can still feel an important play trying to get out. Pham is one of the few writers left whose work still bubbles with the idea that art can change the world. No doubt that notion will eventually get beaten out of him--but it remains a nice thought.
Anna Christie continues at the Loring Playhouse through November 22; call 332-1619. In the Petrified Forest continues at the Cedar-Riverside Cultural Center through November 23; 870-6583.
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