By Eugene O’Neill
Produced by American Century Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! shows a light, playful side of the playwright that we probably otherwise wouldn’t know was there. Yes, there are undertones and hints of the themes that possess his dark and long days’ journeys — references to virtue, manifestation of one’s character, social commentary. And there are the “must haves” in an O’Neill play: a strong take charge even if ineffective mother, and the raving drunk lost in an alcoholic stupor. Actually this piece has not one but two inebriated characters. It’s an interesting exercise, connecting the dots to sleuth the “O’Neill touch” in this uncharacteristic writing. Ah, Wilderness! could have plateaued as a simple excursion of art appreciation were in not for several stand-out cast members who breathe life into this rather drawn out, nostalgic tale.
Although this “coming of age” story has a rather humongous cast of fifteen, the characters all spiral around the nucleus of Father, Mother, and young son on the brink of manhood feeling his first pangs of true love. Kim-Scott Miller playing the father, Nat Miller, is the play’s strong and absolute moral center and carries the weight of the show like the veteran showman that he is. Whether suited up from a day at the office or in a smart lounging jacket relaxing at the home front (costumer Rip Claassen), Miller is the paragon of family values, the last word, the rule setter who couldn’t cast a stern eye or toss a tough word to his youngsters if his life depended on it. Miller has a resolute yet playful air to his delivery and nails the character at every turn.
In like manner, Rebecca Herron is so totally immersed in the character as the mother, Essie Miller, that every utterance and mannerism comes across as strikingly genuine and real. She bustles about tending to the household, overlooking the antics of the maid, fretting over her son’s whereabouts with the commitment of a mother in charge. And then there is Evan Crump who wonderfully portrays the gangling young Richard with all the brooding and sulking required in the script, but with a light-hearted manner and nerdish grin. With his head perpetually buried in his books, he lives in the literary world of Ibsen and Wilde, wher love and honor were as basic as life and death. The other characters revolve around these three, cajoling them, reacting to them, offering their own spins about life. Most noteworthy is John Collins as the lovable and affable family drunk, Uncle Sid, who was mesmerizing in Quotidian’s Tomorrow and who again delivers a solid performance here.
O’Neill takes his time getting to the action and requires a quick footed director to liven up the pace with a light touch which Bob Bartlett does masterfully in most scenes, such as the lobster dinner escapade, but he sometimes allows precious moments to wane, as in the maid’s initial (altogether three) entrances. Emily Webbe is quite enchanting in that role, but enough is enough.
A few slips notwithstanding, the production provides a fresh and even touching glimpse of a time gone by, with a sweet portrayal of things that matter like self-discovery, family ties, devotion and, yes, even love.
(Running time: approximately 2 ½ hours) Ah, Wilderness!, through October 6th, playing at the Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington, VA. Tickets: $26 – $29. Showtimes: Thursday -Saturday at 8pm, some Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. Call 703-553-8782 or visit their website.