Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Uncommon intensity and luminous credibility are Liv Ullmann's invaluable acting gifts. With intelligence as a personal quality, she is beautifully equipped for Eugene O'Neill's "Anne Christie," which Tuesday night began a run through April 9 on the National stage.
That Ann's story, a prostitute determined to reform through the first love of her life, may seem dated in O'Neill's telling is less true than what has changed far more since 1921: morality. In today's world, O'Neill would not have keyed his story to this pitch, but essentially it remains valid. Anna will look at life differently from her recognition of Mat Burke.
What the 56 years - since O'Neill wrote "Anna Christie" - have illuminated in his valid, wholly contemporary attitude about women. His Anna throws Mat's accusations about her past back in his startled face: "You are the sort of man who forces women into this. Who is more guilty. I or you?" How often have playwrights given women similar lines and how little change has resulted over the years.
This, then, is the essence of Anna: intelligent, independent and perceptive. Her seagoing father allowed her to grow up in a Minnesota he thought was so healthy, but a crude cousin raped her. Expecting her father to be living on shore, as he wrote her, she arrives in Johnny-the-Priest's New York saloon, recognized for what she has been by old Marthy, her father's hearty bedmate. Marthy disappears, at rather a loss to the play, and Anna's challenge, like her father's and Mat's, is to express the truth.
Far more important to the play than the story, which will seem trite to some, is its root in the three major characters. Anna is a disciple of determinism: She waits and when an opening comes, she takes it.Burke, though one of O'Neill's Irish Catholics, is forced to see free will as his guiding creed. Chris, the father who mutters about "dat ole davil sea," is a fatalist.
A virtue about the old play construction is the now-neglected sustained scene. Here we have four acts, played with but two intermissions, with developments so firmly controlled by the dramatist that characters advance and retreat, go forward, turn back. This is what humans do, how they react to one another, not with the skimpy, jumpy short scenes which appear to be the only ones our playwrights, now inured to TV, are capable of writing. O'Neill knew this in his marrow from watching his father's performances and in all of his plays the sustained scene is a dominant virtue.
A vietue, too, for actors, and here Ullmann shines. Analyzed, her face has the strong, plain features of a country woman, her blue eyes slightly hooded, her hair that natural blonde just away from brown.Yet, she uses this face with such swift expressiveness, such eager attention that she shines with beauty.
A subtle aid are the costumes by Jane Greenwood, pushing our morality back to 1912; for as in his later plays, O'Neill preferred writing not of contemporary life but something just within memory's reach. The Greenwood clothes and shoes alert us to this period of morality and Ullmann wears them as though they are everyday garmants.
Finally, there is her voice, effortlessly projected and adroit in the deviousness of an actor mastering a line. Her path to spontaneity is to break a line.O'Neill gave the opportunities, but it takes a real actress to recognize them.
Such skills may be technical but they do not come out that way. They come out as natural to the character. And a remarkable one it is, making a star o Pauline Lord in 1921, serving Blanche Sweet in silent films two years later, and Garbo in 1930 as a talkie. Twenty years ago as "New Girl in Town." Gwen Verdon was Anna in a musical with book by George Abbott and score by Robert Merill.
Director Jose Quintero, comfortable to be back with O'Neill again, has guided his well-chosen cast firmly. John Lithgow's Mat probes the battle with his religion and interior understanding.
Robert Donley's Chris, as freighted with Scandinavian as the Irish O'Neill pushed into Mat, is a fine, assured performance. Mary McCarty makes Marthy's single act an effective memory. And Ben Edwards' setting serves O'Neill's demands efficiently.