Even though labels can often be misleading, sometimes they are dead-on accurate. And so it is with two labels connected to Anna Christie, now at Ensemble Theatre.
The first label is the Pulitzer Prize label, which this play by Eugene O’Neill was awarded in 1922. Although perhaps a bit melodramatic by contemporary standards, Anna Christie is a work of amazing force. Sure, it’s waterlogged with a flood of “dat ol’ davil sea” references and the happy ending feels pre-Disney-ish. But this play earns that award with distinct characters who never fail to intrigue.
And the second accurate label is Ensemble Theatre, since the acting assemblage under the direction of Ian Wolfgang Hinz is tight and admirable, meshing together to craft an engrossing story.
Old Swedish salt Chris Christopherson sent his daughter Anna away to live with relatives in Minnesota, to get her away from the sea that has ruled his life. And now, grown-up Anna, who had been working as a prostitute inland, comes back to meet her dad and wash herself clean in the same seawater that bedevils papa.
But when a shipwreck survivor, Mat Burke, comes on board, the personal dynamics shift and there are plenty of rough seas ahead.
The company of actors is strong from top to bottom. As Anna, Katie Nabors counters her physical beauty with enough behavioral rough edges to convincingly portray this whore with a heart of, if not gold, than a nicely polished brass.
Greg White, in a wonderful example of non-traditional casting, is a reflective and often amusing Chris, conveying the look of a crusty seaman while trying to overlook his daughter’s seedy past. White exudes a personal warmth that floods the stage, much as the ever-present fog. And while Michael Johnson as Mat defaults a bit too often to a smirking sort of arrogance, his spot-on Irish accent and focus helps his character play effectively in all his scenes.
In a small role in the first act, Mary Alice Beck trots out a splendid turn as Marthy, Chris’ blowsy dockside squeeze, a veteran boozer herself. Stephen Vasse-Hansell does a neat job as Larry the bartender while Allen Branstein and Kyle Huff fill out other roles nicely.
Sure, we might wish that director Hinz had tried to infuse a bit more nuance into the smiley-face ending. But this is a production that gleams brightly throughout, so we won’t sweat the ending that much.
Through October 19 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.