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Theatre in Review: Ah, Wilderness! (Blackfriars Repertory and Storm Theatre Company/Sheen Center)

Peter Calvin Atkinson.

This production of Ah, Wilderness! begins with the strains of Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer," a canny choice that cuts to the heart of what is so remarkable about O'Neill's classic domestic comedy. It is indeed a beautiful dream of family life, from a writer whose own experiences of such were much, much uglier. Aside from O'Neill, how many playwrights have given us both their light and dark visions of the past? Somehow, he was able to take the mournful aspects of his youth, all of which would eventually end up in the autobiographical Long Day's Journey Into Night -- the corrosive loneliness, the misery of addiction, tormented father-son relations, and one hell of a Madonna-whore complex, all woven into a killing web of guilt and recrimination -- and fold them into a family portrait idealized enough to be hung on the wall next to a sampler that says "Home Sweet Home."

It's quite a trick and O'Neill achieved it without sacrificing his essential honesty. The Millers, of Connecticut, are warmly drawn -- unlike the playwright's real-life family, they are a fictional extended clan of children and in-laws -- but plenty of sadness lurks underneath the festive summer-holiday surface, not least in the long-running romantic standoff between Lily, the family spinster, and Sid, the newspaper reporter who never met a joke, or a drink, he didn't like. Lily and Sid love each other -- indeed, they almost got married once -- but Sid loves the bottle more, and lips that touch liquor will never touch Lily's. She broke off their engagement years earlier, but neither has moved on; instead, they are condemned -- by a combination of convention, inertia, and hopeless affection -- to dwell on the edges of Miller family life, keeping company but never finding fulfillment.

As the play begins, Lily is once again certain that Sid will get through this year's Fourth of July celebrations without slipping -- but for Sid, sobriety isn't in the cards. In one of the play's most beautifully realized scenes, a family dinner already rife with conflicts is further roiled when Sid staggers in, much the worse for wear, and proceeds to make an utter fool of himself, running off at the mouth, knocking things over, and causing gasps around the table when he picks up a cooked lobster and tries to eat it like a sandwich. The rest of the family is mightily amused -- There he goes again, Sid just being Sid, they seem to say with each additional snicker -- but Lily sits there in silence, taking it all in, her hopes thoroughly dashed for the umpteenth time.

O'Neill doesn't make too much of this -- later, we will learn that Sid's drinking has had dire consequences for his career -- but it is there, one of many darker shadings that add dimension to this otherwise-cheerful picture. Similarly, when Richard, the play's awkward, poetry-besotted young hero, gets briefly entangled with one of a pair of "swift babies" who swoop into town, O'Neill plays it for laughs, yet he adds a scene in which Nat, the boy's thoroughly benign parent, notes with no small anxiety how close his son has come to disaster. (Disease is alluded to, without being made explicit.) The Millers may be that literary rarity -- a truly happy family that doesn't cloy -- but they don't inhabit a benign universe. If, as Nat says, they are "completely surrounded by love," darkness lurks just beyond the border of their bright little world.

It takes an especially nimble company, aided by an equally adept director, to bring out the melancholy highlights in this otherwise nostalgic, sun-splashed comedy and, in truth, Peter Dobbins and his troupe aren't really up to the job. In this play, more than most, nuance is everything, and it is a quality that is noticeably missing here. Most of the cast members find a single note and strike it, repeatedly, throughout the evening; some find a single style of line reading and employ it across all three acts. Still, the younger generation acquits itself more ably than the elders, and if you happen to see this Ah, Wilderness! you will at least encounter some interesting young talents.

As Richard, the sullenly romantic and highly trouble-prone scion of the Millers, Peter Calvin Atkinson is the kind of adolescent who exists to drive parents to distraction -- his body a mass of clashing angles and his voice apt to shoot up several registers when hysteria strikes, which is often. He sulks eloquently, sitting at the dinner table with his head down, resting on his firmly planted elbows, his face pasted with a permanent sneer at the banality of it all. Whether proudly announcing to one and all, "I'm a pessimist," ordering sloe gin fizzes to impress a predatory "fast" girl, or informing Muriel, the skittish love of his life, that, without her, he intends to maintain "the pace that kills," he is every bright, awkward, sixteen-year-old nervous wreck you've ever met. Later, confronting his all-too-understanding father about that little episode with Belle, or earnestly pleading his case with Muriel in a clandestine moonlight meeting, he finds a vein of tenderness that feels true and unforced.

There are also some nice contributions from Heather Olsen as Mildred, the Millers' only daughter and a professional pot-stirrer; Natalie Pavelek as Belle, who doesn't mind bedding the clearly inexperienced Richard if it nets her five dollars for her room rent; and Megan McDevitt as Muriel, who loves Richard but really doesn't know what to do with all those racy passages from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that he keeps feeding her. When these young folks are at work, rather more of the genuine warmth and humor of O'Neill's writing comes through.

It's difficult to judge the production design because at the performance I attended the projection system failed to perform. (Like actors Off Off Broadway, projectors don't have understudies.) I will note that Daniel Prosky's scenic design, Sarah Thea Craig's costumes, and Michael Abrams' lighting are all acceptable for this budget level. Ian Wehrle's sound design includes, as a grace note, the melody of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," a nod to George M. Cohan, who created the role of Nat Miller on Broadway.

And even in this somewhat rickety staging, the play's homey, yet insightful, humor comes through at times, as when Muriel's outraged father is waving the steamy poems from Richard that were found in the girl's dresser "hidden under the underwear;" when Essie, Nat's serenely proper wife, holds forth, without a shred of evidence to back her up, on how Oscar Wilde got into trouble for bigamy; when Richard, demonstrating his skills as an aspiring roué, announces, "You know what they say about women and trolley cars: There's always another along in a minute;" or when Nat nervously mops his head while trying to lecture Richard about the facts of life without actually handing him any facts at all. In the production's only avant-garde note, the final fadeout is scored to "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" by The Beach Boys. It's a frank admission that Ah, Wilderness! is an idealized portrait, but such was O'Neill's skill that it feels as real as his picture of the poor, doomed Tyrones of Long Day's Journey, eaten up with longing and regret as the fog rolls in from Long Island Sound. -- David Barbour

(5 February 2019)

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