The praise heaped on Madison actress Carrie Coon over the past year has been so lavish (some have compared her to Vanessa Redgrave) it naturally inspires a bit of skepticism. But Coon's turn in the title role of Madison Repertory Theatre's Anna Christie (playing at the Overture Center Playhouse through Feb. 25) should put any doubts to rest.
Eugene O'Neill's 1922 Pulitzer-winner tells the tale of a young Midwestern prostitute who reunites with her father, a bargeman on the Eastern Seaboard, after 15 years of separation. Her father's deluded admiration and the aggressive love of a young sailor finally force Anna to reveal the secrets of her past, endangering her relationships with both men and shaking her reborn sense of self.
O'Neill has a novelist's knack for gradual development of character, and the Rep's Anna Christie makes the most of each identity-revealing moment. Director Richard Corley accentuates the fragile connections of love while maintaining a surprising sense of levity; the shortcomings and quirks of these fully realized characters naturally balance the drama. The set, designed by Jack Magaw, is rich with deep hues and detail, echoing the play's contrast of shabby dock life with the grandeur of the sea and sky.
Chicago actor Craig Spidle is ideally cast as bargeman Chris Christopherson, capturing the character's naïve optimism without oversimplifying the fatalism that underlies his drunken bumbling. Some scenes between Spidle and Coon are so raw - especially the delicate moment of Anna and Chris' first meeting - the audience feels compelled to hold its breath. Lea Coco gives a brilliant performance as sailor Mat Burke, creating the perfect blend of charm and unpretentious arrogance.
And Carrie Coon is simply fascinating. From the moment she orders her first whiskey, Coon reveals an Anna whose sophisticated self-awareness allows occasional glimpses of spellbinding depths. You cannot take your eyes off her. Anna Christie is in good hands.