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A CurtainUp DC Review
The playwright in a letter to his son described Ah, Wilderness! as "more the capture of 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 " He went on to state "It is a comedy . . . not satiric . . .but laughing at its absurdities while at the same time appreciating and emphasizing its lost spiritual and ethical values.” Sentimentality and humor, emotions not usually associated with the author of such dramas as Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh, make Ah, Wilderness something of a surprise.
Rick Foucheux, a consistently good actor gives a heart-warming performance as Nat Miller, the lovable head of family. His wife Essie (a restrained and effective Nancy Robinette) cannot bring herself to be strict with her children even though she knows she should be. The young are Arthur (Davis Chandler Hasty in the evening’s most thankless part) personifies the smug older brother, Mildred, the dutiful daughter (Talisa Friedman), Tommy (Thomas Langston/T. J. Langston on Thursday evenings) the youngest and cutest member of the family, and Richard, the lovesick son and possible stand-in for the author, played with youthful exuberance by William Patrick Riley.
This “nuclear” family is joined by friends, Lily (Kimberly Schraf) and Sid Davis, an amiable drunk (Jonathan Lincoln Fried) who almost walk away with the show. The sadness of their status in life – aged spinster and amiable souse – is quite palpable.
Director Kyle Donnelly and Set Designer Kate Edmunds have emphasized the stuffiness of family life at the beginning of the 20th-century. The urge to open a window is great and yet to be reminded of the old values on display here evokes not melodrama but a sweet nostalgia. There is the obligatory drunk scene, as in all O’Neill’s plays, but here it seems out of context. Ok, Richard goes to a sleazy bar and meets a sleazy barfly, no surprises there, but the length of the encounter/scene slows the forward narrative and loses the evening’s momentum.
It’s a play that’s not done often because it's perhaps too wordy, too old fashioned for modern audiences. But it's worth seeing if you want to get a glimpse of O’Neill’s lighter side.
In addition to Ah, Wilderness! the O’Neill festival continues with Long Day’s Journey Into Night ,directed by Robin Phillips, March 30 to May 6, at Arena Stage/Kreeger Theater; and , directed by Michael Kahn, is at the Shakespeare Theatre from March 27 to April 29. For a list of lectures, panels, and play readings, go to arenastage.org and shakespearetheatre.org. Two radio plays, combined into Recklessness Before Breakfast, is running online. For more festival details see: Arenastage.org/shows-tickets/the-season/productions/eugene-oneill-festival/index.shtml
For more about Eugene O'Neill and links to other O'Neill plays reviewed at Curtainup, see our O'Neill Backgrounder.