In three acts, we get idealized Norman Rockwell-style Americana. As in his dramas, O’Neill’s sense of structure is totally idiosyncratic. Ah, Wilderness! is shorter than his dramas but still feels long at two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission but it is absorbing nonetheless. That’s due to its novel perspective. Instead of the cheapskate father and drug addict mother in Long Day’s Journey into Night, we get idealized perfect parents. The young hero here is set on a path of moral rectitude rather than dissolution. O’Neill offers an uplifting fantastical reworking of his well-documented grim upbringing where everything for a change is happily resolved.
It’s the Fourth of July in 1906 at the crowded Miller household in small-town Connecticut. There’s barbecues, lobster dinner and fireworks. The amiable middle-aged Nat owns the local newspaper. His caring wife Essie efficiently takes care of the domestic duties. Their four children are 11-year-old Tommy, 15-year-old Mildred, 19-year-old Yale student Arthur and the main character. He is O’Neill’s stand-in, the nearly 17-year-old Richard. Also in residence is Essie’s garrulous alcoholic brother Sid and Nat’s prim spinster sister Lilly. They’ve had a tempestuous 15-year relationship with marriage prevented by his chronic drinking.
Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Algernon Charles Swinburne are authors that the headstrong Richard idolizes. His girlfriend Muriel’s stuffy businessman father is appalled by his radical views and forbids her to see him anymore. This precipitates the wholesome Richard’s drunken escapades at a saloon where he encounters a predatory prostitute. This scene is a highlight of the play due to O’Neill’s realism, insightful writing and the strong performances by the cast.
The youthful Peter Atkinson is outstanding as Richard and is the production’s centerpiece. Mr. Atkinson’s animated intensity, comic timing, slightly croaky voice and sense of depth capture the adolescent bravado of an all American boy of yesteryear.
With his mature countenance and measured folksy vocal delivery, Ken Trammel as Nat is the embodiment of a father who knows best. Whether bickering about the dangers of eating bluefish or trying to explain sex, Mr. Trammell is just wonderful. Delightfully fluttering about is Lynn Laurence who gives a tender portrait of quaint motherhood as Essie. Ted McGuinness’ Uncle Sid is an ingratiating and wise drunk. As the archetypical old maid Lily, Renée Petrofes lightly combines dignity and humor.
In addition to Atkinson’s appealing boyishness, the saloon scene is a standout due to the magnetic Natalie Pavelek’s brassy turn as the whore without a heart of gold, Marshall Taylor Thurman’s fierce bartender and Mark J. Quiles’ randy salesman. Ms. Pavelek also scores in the comic relief part of the Miller’s clumsy maid.
Megan McDevitt as Muriel, Jim Haines as her father, Sean Cleary as Arthur, Thurman as a devil may care compatriot of Richard’s and Heather Olsen as Lilly all have their shining moments as their respective characters. At the performance under review, the alternating child role of Tommy was played by spunky Douglas Wann.
Director Peter Dobbins’ solid yet sensitive staging settles in after the slack opening sequence. It has complicated imagery and lighting that doesn’t jell. There’s also an awkward use of dark projections to signify outside locales.
Questionable technical issues aside, maneuvering the cast of 14 on the contained stage and guiding their sensitive performances is achieved through Mr. Dobbins’ thoughtful efforts. There’s intimacy and small-scale scope that’s aided by costume designer Sarah Thea Craig’s terrific collection of period wear that finely visualizes each character with an optimum of detail.
Scenic designer Daniel Prosky’s inspired assortment and arrangement of vintage furnishings believably and simply render the various settings and allow for scene transitions with relative swiftness. Michael Abrams’ lighting design evokes the sheen of the past with its sepia tones. “Beautiful Dreamer,” Sousa melodies and a collection of long ago popular tunes are perfectly realized by sound designer Ian Werhle.
Ah, Wilderness! opened on Broadway in 1933 starring George M. Cohan as Nat and ran for 289 performances. Will Rogers played the father in the touring company and Lionel Barrymore in the 1935 film adaptation. Orson Welles did a 1930’s radio version. The play was the source material for the 1948 film musical Summer Holiday and the 1959 Broadway musical Take Me Along that starred Jackie Gleason as Uncle Sid. Ah, Wilderness! has also been revived several times on Broadway.
This tender production demonstrates the enduring beauty of Ah, Wilderness! O’Neill gives a heightened nostalgic vision of the golden family life many would like to have had.
Ah, Wilderness! (through February 17, 2019)
Blackfriars Repertory Theatre and The Storm Theatre
The Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, 18 Bleecker Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-925-2812 or visit http://www.sheencenter.org
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission