My grandfather, Alex Imlach, spent his life associated with the sea. He operated fisheries and spent years with squareheads on the choppy waters of Alaska fishing for salmon and king crab. So I guess I was genetically inclined to have a natural love of being in or on the water.
So it was thoroughly believable when Anna (Eden Neuendorf) declares how natural it seems to be living in her new nautical environment that is so far removed from the land life in which she grew up. Having more difficulty finding sure footing is her father, Chris (John Hale), who is trying to make a home on a coal barge for a daughter he hasn't seen since childhood. The coal barge home is short-lived as it is wrecked by a ship that then becomes their home.
Anna grows ever fonder of the sea and sea life over the protestations of her father, who has grown to view the sea as the devil, who has taken everyone else that he loves. Thus is the story of Chris Christophersen, the Eugene O'Neill play that even the author lost interest in after out-of-town previews. O'Neill became more interested in other projects, including rewriting the story as Anna Christie, which has become a film and stage staple.
It is reported that Chris Christophersen has not been produced since it's abandonment by the author in 1920. In recognition of Eugene O'Neill's 125th birthday, for the 14th Annual Eugene O'Neill Festival, Role Players Ensemble and The Eugene O'Neill Foundation have produced both plays in tandem - Anna Christie under the direction of George Maguire at the Village Theatre and Chris Christophersen for one weekend only under the direction of Eric Fraisher Hayes at Eugene O'Neill's Tao House. Both productions used the same cast, not only contrasting the two stories but also the range of the stellar players.
Neuendorf was as in control of Anna as Anna was in control of the changes inhabiting her new life. Hale captured his hatred of the sea and concern for his daughter through rummied eyes beautifully. Since this story was more about character than actual story, the supporting cast did an exceptional job providing color and life. Most actors did double duty and created truly distinctive characters. The only other female cast member, Sally Hogarty, was a delight as Marthy Owens, Chris's bedmate. It was disappointing to see her graciously leave to make room for the newly-arriving Anna. I understand Marthy was not quite as accommodating in Anna Christie.
Hayes provided masterful direction to keep us engaged. The truly remarkable element was the dialect work from Robin Taylor. Each character seemed to come from a different locale and had consistent and definable textures to their speech. Some of the dialects were so authentic and rich they were, at times, hard to understand. I, as an audience member, didn't mind working a little harder to enjoy the richness of the work being done.
Several elements, beside the acting, made this production work. The play was presented in a barn at the Tao House that provided a perfect environment for our sea journey. The lighting effects (Joshua Hardwick) and sound (Robert Bo Golden) accented that feeling, particularly as the ship collided with the hapless barge at the conclusion of Act I.
Just as Chris grew to hate the sea that provided him with a life, my grandfather, too, found the sea a difficult partnership to maintain, especially the older he got. The last we heard of him, he headed out into the straits of Alaska and the boat returned without him. He and Chris were both bound to the sea for eternity,
Interest in this production was vast, as theatre companies from across the country made their way to sleepy little Danville to get a glimpse of this lost treasure. Here's hoping they will find a way to bring new life from the depths of Eugene O'Neill's imagination.