"Gif me a viskey, ginger ale on the side -- and don't be stingy, baby." $1
That line from "Annie Christie" has been immortalized as the first screen utterance of Greta Garbo in the 1930 film adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's drama. From the moment it is spoken during the current Source Theatre revival, we know there are going to be problems with the production.
"Anna Christie," written more than a decade earlier than the Garbo film version, is minor O'Neill. But, if it is not profound, it can be affecting. v
Anna -- who is sent by her seafaring father to live with relatives on a farm, seduced by a country cousin and finally flees to the city and prostitution -- is a memorable character with force and emotion. If she is pursued by her past, Chris, the father, also cannot escape the "old devil sea," which he blames for ruining his life.
But "Annie Christie" presents a special problem for present-day viewers. It is a period piece in which the moral view underlying the action is difficult to understand: The theatergoer must accept a world in which all young women should be pure and innocent and prostitutes should be outcasts.
The Source production, on a rough-hewn wooden platform that doubles effectively as a waterfront bar and the cabin of a coar barge, has vitality and energy. But Megan Morgan, certainly a stageworthy talent with a lively Irish beauty and lilt of speech to go with it, is miscast as the brooding, bitter Anna.
Morgan convincingly conveys some of the tenderer moments -- for example, the scene in which Anna stands on the barge and "feels clean" as if she had taken a bath in the bracing sea air. But her scathing excoriation of her father and suitor, after they react in disgust to the revelation of her florid past, never reaches high pitch.
As the father, Brian Donohue does much better with the accent. His is a solid performance as the old man who curses the "old devil sea" and doesn't want his daughter married to a "no-good sailor fellow." Bart Whiteman is a robust Mat, the sailor washed up from the sea who becomes Anna's suitor.It is a role that allows Whiteman to display his physical strength (he played varsity football at Yale), great lung power and well-turned Irish accent.
It remains for Ethel H. Minor to give the cameo performance as Marthy, the role that Marie Dressler brought to the screen.
Whether sorting scarves from an old shopping bag by draping them around her neck in layers or ordering a succession of lager and ales, Minor depicts a blowzy, good-natured woman who has survived in the sordid world of waterfront saloons and rough sailors. She is willing to fade away as Chris' mistress to make way for Anna on the coal barge. With an old hat perched on her head, brim turned back, Minor views the world with a quizzical, shrewd, off-center smile that truly embodies Marty.
The Source troupe will be staging "Anna Christie" through Feb. 15 at its reconverted theater space at 1809 14th St. NW. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.