Performing in a Eugene O'Neill play has its hazards.
"It's like getting hit by a truck," says Carrie Coon, 26, as she readies herself for the title role of O'Neill's 1922 drama Anna Christie. "It's the hardest thing I've ever done, so gritty and raw."
Coon stars in Madison Repertory Theatre's production of the play, which opens Feb. 2 at the Overture Center Playhouse. It is helmed by Rep artistic director Richard Corley and follows his successful staging, two years ago, of O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten.
In Anna Christie, set in about 1910, a 20-year-old Minnesota woman is reunited on the New York waterfront with her father, a coal-barge captain who abandoned her years earlier. But she is spurned by him and her new suitor, a young seaman, when she tells them that she has been working as a prostitute.
"She's a hooker with a heart of gold, such a cliché," says Coon. But in Anna Christie, as in other O'Neill plays, seemingly clichéd characters turn out to be nuanced. "She's hit rock bottom, and she experiences this transformation when she comes to the sea. She's trying to figure out why she belongs here, and she finds that it's possible to start over. She's able to forgive herself, and her father."
A 2006 graduate of the UW-Madison's masters program in acting, Coon is no stranger to the local stage. In the Rep's production of Our Town last year, she gave a shattering turn as Emily Webb, a teenage girl who confronts mortality and regret and, in Coon's portrayal, wails and collapses. Last summer she played small parts as an intern at Spring Green's American Players Theatre, and she will return to APT next summer for prominent roles in George Bernard Shaw's Misalliance and Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana.
As for Anna, "it's a quintessential female role in American theater," says Coon, who is joined in the show by two Chicago actors: Rep veteran Craig Spidle as Anna's father and newcomer Lea Coco as her beau. When Corley approached her last winter about playing this great part, she hesitated. "I said, ‘Do you really want me to do this?' He said, ‘Yup.' I said, ‘Do you trust me?' He said, ‘Yup.'"
To prepare for the role, she read scholarly works like The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918, by the historian Ruth Rosen. And she steeled herself to perform Eugene O'Neill's notoriously wrenching work, which is "so epic, it's practically Greek in scope," she says.
"If you're not exhausted," she notes, "then you're not doing it right."