Ah, Wilderness!, Eugene O'Neill's only comedy, is given a lavish treatment at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre, resulting in a dream production full of bright, endearing charm
Reviewed by Iris Brooks, Fri., April 20, 2007
Mary Moody Northen Theatre at St. Edward's University, through April 22
"Heartwarming" is a word rarely used to describe the plays of Eugene O'Neill. The great master of the American family tragedy, O'Neill turned his hand to comedy only once with Ah, Wilderness!, and this dramatic rarity is given a full and lavish treatment at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre. Set on the Fourth of July in a small Connecticut town, the play is a lighthearted and nostalgic look at the Miller family and the romantic coming-of-age of their 16-year-old son, Richard.
At first, the Saturday Evening Post preciousness of it, the homely wisdom and dialogue coming from the man that gave us Long Day's Journey Into Night, is like listening to the stentorian clarity of a Bach fugue played on a jangling player piano. Despite this, the production succeeds utterly and is actually a welcome reminder of the many rewards to be found in the often-overlooked world of university theatre. The St. Edward's department of theatre has hit upon a winning formula of integrating veteran professionals with students in their productions, and the resulting interplay between generations, between sure, confident experience and bright-eyed excitement, suits and complements the subject matter of this play admirably.
Nigel O'Hearn is winning as the love-struck Richard, and all of the students in the smaller, supporting roles sparkle, evoking a full and lively world. Janelle Buchanan, in her role as Essie Miller, the mother of the clan, gives a warm, buoyant, vivacious performance all the more admirable considering she was battling a stomach flu on opening night. Ev Lunning Jr. as her husband and Ian Scott as her brother round out the elders of the likable family group.
By far the most remarkable feature of this production is the sheer wealth of resources on display. With a cast of 14 and a parade of beautifully executed period costumes and properties, it is the sort of dream production possible for only the most well-funded companies, which, it is said, rarely perform academic curiosities. Visually, it inspires a contemplative awe as to what can be accomplished when granted the luxury of access to so much talent and to a small army of eager and willing hands not necessarily dependant on monetary compensation. A properties master and staff that can lay onstage a three-course, edible dinner that includes six broiled lobster tails merit congratulations.
Rod Caspers does an excellent job with his direction. The performers move naturally and comfortably, and he draws out more wit and humor than the script necessarily provides with novel and unexpected gestures. He makes effective use of the arena stage and seating and, within the skeleton of the house implied by the set, creates a convincing impression of the bustling, fully fleshed life of a large family.
To those familiar with the agonized realism of much of O'Neill's work and his unflinching portrayals of the devastation wrought by alcohol, the blithe Millers, for whom an uncle's drinking problem is just a family joke, an indulgent foible, can be discomfiting. The play carries with it an uneasy impression of escapism, the idealization of a innocuous youth that O'Neill himself never experienced, but the bright, endearing charm of the cast and of the entire production, manages to transcend the suspicion of disingenuousness. In their hands, this is a straightforward, heartwarming meditation on young love, the American family, and an innocent nostalgia for a harmless past that never really was.