Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
January 27, 2015
What a way to start a new year. Walking into the Odyssey’s intimate Theatre 2, it’s hard to not feel an immediate sense that one is about to be enveloped in something incredibly special. In the cramped playing area, with only two walls available for a set, a long wooden slanted platform forms the stage, suspended above a moat of real water surrounding and isolating it. The playing area is lit only by three hanging industrial metal lamp fixtures, two indistinct practical household table lamps set on the floor to one side, and a glaringly bright ghost lamp. With wisps of fog floating around this setting’s stark angles, the mood is instantly evocative and magical in its simplicity.
In part that’s because the stage for the opening scene of O’Neill’s rarely performed 1922 Pulitzer Prize–winning classic is usually complete with an elaborate wall of bottles and glasses behind a practical wood-paneled bar to conjure Johnny the Priest’s riverside saloon situated along the Hudson, a place which later gives way to the deck of the barge Simeon Wintrope at anchor in the Provincetown, Mass., harbor and, later, a cabin below deck. The seemingly complex set changes this play calls for now appear easily managed, thanks to the talented hands of director Kim Rubinstein, whose touch is so evident everywhere that her contribution is almost an extra character in the piece.
In her version, the players struggle to leap across the moat, sometimes becoming immersed. In the visionary collaboration between Rubinstein and set designer Wilson Chin, all that is needed is the blocky, shadowy platform eerily lit by Michael Gend, the undulating spectre of the story’s ever-present sea, and the viewers’ imaginations, leaving room to concentrate on the true wonder of the material and appreciate some of the finest and most balls-out acting to hit LA stages in quite some time.
Granted, hearing the century-old words created by one of our nation’s greatest dramatists always educes a haunting place no matter what the circumstances. but, as brought back to life by this particular group of artists, it’s both a breathtakingly real and a wretchedly lonesome journey to take. Delivering lines such as “Sailor all right feller but not for marry girl” is not an easy task for any anyone, but if the intentions of the actors are as sincere and the harsh long-gone world inhabited by these uneducated people facing real hardships brought on by their place in the class structure of America in 1910 is realized as perfectly as it is here, the result is a theatrical experience that won’t be soon forgotten.
Anna (the transcendent Zoe Perry) is a physically and emotionally broken young woman who travels to the dank New York waterfront to find her father, crusty old Swedish sea salt Chris Christopherson (Perry’s real-life father Jeff Perry) whom she hasn’t seen since she was 5 years old. Raised by cousins on a midwestern farm, Anna was worked like a slave and repeatedly sexually abused by the family’s youngest son. Escaping to the big city, she tries her hand at regular work as a governess but finds that her earlier experiences have left her better qualified to earn a living on her back. Her father ain’t much of a prize, either: a skipper on a coal barge drinking himself into oblivion at any opportunity, not writing to his daughter because, he says, he wanted to keep her as far away from “that ol’ devil sea” as possible.
Without explaining her brutal past to her father, Anna takes up residency on his coal barge, where she meets Mat Burke (Kevin McKidd), a shipwrecked Irish sailor who proposes to her before he even dries off. But as the love between Anna and Mat deepens, Anna becomes increasingly more wary of the day she’ll have to tell the men in her life about her questionable past. Even Chris and Mat’s animosity for each other pales in comparison to that dreaded moment when she comes clean to them. “I’m destroyed entirely, and my heart is broken to bits!” wails Mat, so distraught he even considers killing the woman he loved so deeply only a few minutes before, while her father, of course, just goes out and gets sloshed.
As O’Neill’s much-maligned title character, Zoe Perry is mesmerizing. In her very first scene, she quickly reveals her character’s hard-as-nails exterior and the delicate, gossamer vulnerability lurking just below the surface. When she explains her plight to Marthy (a crusty and splendidly froggy-voiced Mary Mara), her father’s equally salty main squeeze, Perry never for a moment descends into caricature as so many have in this role. And when she tells Marthy, “You’re me 40 years from now,” it’s a poignant, melodious, simple delivery as she shakes all over, spewing out through her touching fragility a jarring disgust with the world in general and men in particular.
Jeff Perry is equally impressive as Anna’s father. It’s a colorful role written with numerous traps into which most actors fall, usually reducing the character to the pouting, one-note, sad-sack, “yumpin’ yiminy” kind of Scandinavian portrayed in 1930s Hollywood movies. McKidd’s character can also easily descend into every stereotype of a sailor of the era, complete with puffing chest and pirate-y accent, but not for a moment does that happen here. These incredibly gifted actors make for remarkable storytelling.
Still, the most indelible component in Rubinstein’s atmospheric, courageously unpretentious new look at the gloomy long-gone world O’Neill so uniquely explored, is the brilliantly rich and multifaceted performance of Zoe Perry, who tumbles headfirst into the trials, strengths, and shattered dreams of the title role with dizzying force. When Mat tells Anna about how great it is to meet a real lady instead of the for-hire lowlifes he’s encountered in his years at sea, the expression in her eyes as she realizes how everything she has gained could be taken from her is absolutely heartbreaking, as though the actor is channeling the gifts of Hepburn and Streep and Chaplin. This production, above all its other wonders, heralds a future career that could rival that of either of her illustrious parents.
January 27, 2015
Jan. 24–March 8.
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. There is wheelchair access. Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $20–34.99. (310) 477-2055.