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The sea roars, plumes of light ignite billowing fog, rain cascades down the back of the set, cries of the shipwrecked rend the air, bodies of survivors crawl up from waves. Suddenly, like a brutish, wounded animal hurled up from the deep, Jude Law’s gasping, soaked, semi-naked body heaves itself shuddering on to the deck, skidding down the vertiginously high rake of Paul Wills’ astonishingly versatile set. O’Neill didn’t write the stunningly staged storm scene, but it’s crucial to Rob Ashford’s visionary staging of “Anna Christie.”

Ashford’s grip on this often melodramatic story of redemption is evident right from the opening. As Howard Harrison’s chilly lights cut across the Donmar’s bare thrust stage, actors surge in, filling the house with energy as they build the dockside drinking den beneath Adam Cork’s suggestive, rising soundscape. The mix of literal location and a more mythic, sensory world not only speaks to O’Neill’s self-conscious poetry; it charges up what is often a static play.

Flicking cigarette ash away with neurotic abandon, pale Anna (Ruth Wilson) teeters in, stung with exhaustion. Her lipsticked gash of a mouth hanging slightly open, she looks both young and worn-through as she surveys her future, cracked as it is by her past. After 15 years in a horror-filled childhood on a farm, she’s desperate for rest.

She has since been working as whore, a fact kept from her enraptured, staunchly sentimental father, Chris Christopherson, played with fierce authenticity by a weather-beaten David Hayman in a gruff, perfectly sing-song period Swedish accent. And when the storm washes stoker Mat Burke (Law) aboard her father’s coal barge, it’s clear from their electrifying connection that he and Anna are on opposite sides of a fated union.

O’Neill was never a writer to embrace understatement, and there’s not a single thought in this play that he isn’t at great pains to overexpress. That explanatory nature is further complicated by O’Neill’s love of dualities — Mat’s yearning for love on land vs. the love of the sea, Anna’s “depravity” vs. her idealized innocence, the tension between her hidden past and his dreamed-of future. To attempt to naturalize or, rather, neutralize all that into a comfortable middle range would render it absurd, which is why Ashford doesn’t shrink from finding laughs in Christopherson’s constant references to the devil that is the sea, and also why he encourages his actors to embrace the elemental nature of the writing.

In true O’Neill fashion, the lovers’ mutual longing is dressed in torment. As she struggles between self-disgust and flickers of wrenching hope, Wilson ricochets hypnotically between taut physical defiance and tremulousness without ever toppling into overt display, a restraint that keeps audienecs guessing.

When Mat’s vision of her is shattered by the revelation of her whoring past, Law hoists an iron bedstead aloft and slams it down, but never lets his anger boil over into indiscriminate, actorly shouting. Enraged by the wheedling father who stands between them, he literally picks him up, making Hayman look like Tom Thumb. But Law, going for broke with a rich Irish accent, also reveals Mat as a naive dreamer. When he tells Anna “I’d rather be friends with you than anything else in the world,” he directs his longing out at the sea, partly out of shyness and partly because the ocean’s haunting presence ironically represents security: It’s all he truly knows.

The production’s hallmark is its boldness. This is a creative team working in remarkable harmony. The clarity of the thinking shows right through Wills’ costuming, which gives the sailors necessary heft and weigh — except Hayman, whose baggy clothes help him look hollowed out from the inside, and Anna, whose translucent fabric gently emphasizes her fragility, a quality highlit by Harrison wrapping her in toplight.

“Anna Christie” is rarely staged, largely due to its ending awash with dangerously unearned emotions. But these actors bring such three-dimensional conviction to the play that unexpected hope is tempered by a serious ache of sadness. Ashford’s grippingly rooted, operatic production not only makes the best possible case for this seriously flawed drama; it makes you long to see what the helmer might do on the operatic stage proper. “Peter Grimes,” anyone?

Anna Christie

Donmar Warehouse, London; 250 seats; £32.50$52.50 top

  • Production: A Donmar Warehouse presentation of a play in two acts by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Rob Ashford.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Paul Wills; lighting, Howard Harrison; music and sound, Adam Cork; production stage manager, Michael Dennis. Opened, reviewed Aug. 11, 2011. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
  • Cast: Anna Christopherson - Ruth Wilson<BR>Mat Burke - Jude Law <BR>Chris Christopherson - David Hayman <BR>Marthy Owen - Jenny Galloway <BR>Larry - Henry Pettigrew <BR>Johnny the Priest - Paul Brightwell <BR>First Longshireman - Michael Walters<BR>Second Longshoreman - Matt Wilman <BR>Postman - Robert Lonsdale
  • Music By: