Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! plays a welcome trick on you. While enjoying a lighthearted situational comedy of stock family shenanigans, set in a time and place out of extant memory and bathed in wistful nostalgia—you’re delivered to a threshold, an ingress into the profound inner works of weighty things: the soul of America, the stages of life and patterns of family, and that painfully poignant human yearning to experience the passage of time over and over again, to dream it anew, to make it right.
Lovingly directed by Kyle Donnelly and anchored by local favorites Rick Foucheux and Nancy Robinette, Arena’s sublime production of O’Neill’s unabashedly romantic valentine—the kickoff of a two-month Eugene O’Neill festival to be held around the Washington, D.C., region—concerns the charming, whimsical Miller clan of seaside Connecticut and specifically the coming of age of their seventeen-year-old-son Richard. The young man experiences the heady rush of desire and rebellion and dreams of glories to come as the family celebrates the Fourth of July holiday in turn-of-the-century America.
The heartrending presumption about Ah, Wilderness! has always been that it was the playwright’s imagined childhood—the way he wished it to have been—instead of the harrowing depiction we have come to know in Long Day’s Journey into Night (next up for Arena running Mar. 30-May 6).
O’Neill himself said as much, describing Ah, Wilderness! at times as “a comedy of recollection,” a “wishing out loud,” and “the capture of a mood, an evocation [of] the period in which my middle teens were spent—a memory of the time of my youth—not of my youth but of the youth in which my generation spent youth.” It is evident that he also wrote the play as a call to the past and the things that are detrimentally lost as humanity lurches unstoppably toward the future.
There is much to enjoy in Arena’s production of O’Neill’s wishful look back, not the least of which is the elegant, masterful language itself and its themes of family and growing pains, which are universal and oblivious to the passage of time.
But I found a dichotomous tension in the performances, which, while never toppling the whole, threatened to rip at its seams and bothered the constancy of the dramaturgy.
In one corner, Foucheux’s decent, understanding Nat Miller, the patriarch of the clan, leads half the cast in a natural acting style, deftly and assuredly hitting the comic notes with a subtlety and grace that pays the most bang for my buck. Foucheux, Nancy Robinette as the maternal, caring Essie, and Kimberly Schraf as the down-to-Earth Lily forge characters that have soaked up what’s in the script and deliver it through performance with the appearance of effortlessness, allowing the audience in, to relate to the action, feel the pangs of hurt or joyously release laughter at their foibles.
Strangely, this group is pulled from a contrary corner by others in the cast who’ve been directed to play their parts in a near-farcical, outsized show of overacting for effect. The scene-eaters are led by the central figure of the piece, William Patrick Riley as young Richard. Riley is in a ceaseless state of lampoon as the love-struck adolescent who spouts Marxist clichés and sends his paramour cribbed erotic lines from Swinburne. Davis Chandler Hasty’s foolish Yalie Arthur and James Flanagan’s Wint Selby, the stereotype collegiate “bad influence” play their roles as crudely drawn caricatures, ginning for laughs.
And then there’s the indomitable Jonathan Lincoln Fried’s full-bodied performance as the perpetual disappointment Sid Davis. To add to the erratic nature of the whole, Fried’s Sid traverses both sides, adroitly holding his own in naturally played scenes and soaring into broad camp on a dime, most egregiously during his drunken peroration in Act Two, which he plays so large that the play briefly becomes a one-man show.
This isn’t to say that Fried is not excellent throughout, or that the caricatures aren’t funny, because he is and they are, but it takes some getting used to alongside Foucheux’s strong realism.
Foucheux is perfect in the role, magnanimous and tough, the ideal Paterfamilias. His interplay with Robinette is the high water mark of the play, moving and sweet in their affection for each other. The darkly sad Sid and Lily make up the other compelling pairing, in tragic counterpoint to Nat and Essie. Sid and Lily are closer to what O’Neill is known for, wounded husks subsistent on regret and failings. Fried’s and Schraf’s relationship is tenderly drawn in several splendid realizations throughout the play.
Another character in the production is the iconic Fichandler stage itself, delighting the audience with its wonderful mechanics, put to good use.
Kate Edmunds’ beautifully dressed set is arranged and rearranged, rises and drops off like a jigsaw puzzle. The set drew oohs and ahhs from the audience in Scene Four’s showstopper when stars descend from the ceiling and a full, gibbous moon rises from the stage to takes its place in the firmament. Russell Champa’s lovely lighting subtly creates mood, time and place, and Nan Cibula-Jenkins’ detailed period costumes are works of art.
The final tableaux epitomizes the stone-cold truth of the play, when after a reconciliation between Richard and his parents, the ever-wise Nat, holding an embrace with Essie, his life-long love, looks at the meditating, moon-begotten Richard and calls him “a statue of love’s young dream,” followed by: “Well, Spring isn’t everything, is it, Essie? There’s a lot to be said for Autumn. That’s got beauty, too. And Winter—if you’re together.”
The power of O’Neill’s art in Ah, Wilderness!, a “sentimental evocation,” as he termed it, lies in his ability to convey that cold darkness lying just behind the warm gauze of sunlight, and vivify the recited line of the poetry of Omar Khayyam: “Yet, ah, that spring should vanish like a rose, that youth’s sweet-scented manuscript should close.”
Ah, Wilderness! runs thru April 8, 2012, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth Street, SW Washington, D.C.
by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Kyle Donnelly
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Roy Maurer
Running time: Approximately 2 hours, 40 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
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