Donmar Warehouse, London
Jude Law is the big draw in this outstanding revival of Eugene O'Neill's 1921 play. But Law's is only one in a triptych of fine performances, the others coming from Ruth Wilson and David Hayman, in a production by Rob Ashford that discovers the inner intensity of a play that can easily lapse into coarse melodrama.
Baldly summarised, O'Neill's plot sounds like one of those Victorian woman-with-a-past plays. The eponymous heroine is reunited with her father Chris, an old Scandinavian salt and now captain of a Provincetown coal barge, after a gap of 15 years.
What neither Chris nor Mat, a shipwrecked Irish stoker who falls instantly in love with her, realise is that Anna has been working as a Minnesota prostitute. In their ignorance, Chris and Mat fight for spiritual possession of her. When the truth emerges, they reject her with equal violence. But when Mat finally agrees to marry Anna, redemptive happiness seems at hand.
What Ashford has grasped, however, is that O'Neill's real protagonist is none of the human characters: it is the sea itself. Along with designer Paul Wills and composer Adam Cork, Ashford swathes the play in nautical realism.
The evening starts with a cacophony of ships' foghorns and whistles, sea-shanties bridge the scene changes and the recovery of Mat's body from the storm becomes as thrilling as the opening of The Tempest with the wind-lashed stage precipitously rising and falling.
All this matters because it lends Chris's endless refrain of "dat ole devil, sea" a choric power. It also heightens O'Neill's Conradian awareness of the sea as a tragic force which shapes human destinies: something that becomes rivetingly clear at the climax and rescues it from sentimentality.
The acting matches the production's visual power. Ruth Wilson, following in the footsteps of Greta Garbo on screen and Natasha Richardson on stage, not only vividly embodies O'Neill's description of Anna as "a tall, blond, Viking-daughter", she also has the haunted look of a woman traumatised by her past. Ogled by the sailors in a waterfront bar, she chases them away with undisguised fury.
But what Wilson captures with seeming effortlessness are the contradictions inside Anna: the aching loneliness of soul, the temporary satisfaction that stems from Mat's love and the final desolate uncertainty as he takes once more to the sea.
Law, in the best performance I've seen him give, is also excellent as her brawny lover. Cast against type, Law conveys the muscular innocence of a man who has a rolling nautical gait, looks deeply uncomfortable in a suit and acts purely on instinct: when happy, Law essays a jaunty Irish jig and, when enraged, pummels pillows and hurls chairs at walls with primitive abandon. I suspect it's a breakthrough performance in that it releases Law from the tyranny of always being seen as the good-looking lead man and allows him to become a character actor.
David Hayman makes the potentially tiresome Chris into a wiry, weatherbeaten figure who articulates O'Neill's doom-laden vision of the sea's impenetrable mystery.
And that is the real key to this superb production: it strips the play of its melodramatic externals and, through precise evocation of mood, discovers in it a work about the awesome and overpowering force of nature.