Review: “Ah, Wilderness!”

Niall Cunningham (Richard Miller) and Ayssette Muñoz (Muriel McComber) in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!

RECOMMENDED

Where: Goodman Theatre Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through July 23
Tickets: $20-$75
Phone: 312-443-3800

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I like to think of “Ah, Wilderness!” as Eugene O’Neill’s fantasy about the family he never had but wished he did. First produced in 1933 but set in a small seaside Connecticut town over the Fourth of July in 1906, the playwright’s only real comedy is a coming-of-age tale that could have turned tragic but doesn’t because the people involved truly love each other. And Goodman Theatre’s production directed by Steve Scott brings them and their idealized world charmingly to life.

Unlike O’Neill’s dysfunctional drug-and-alcohol-addicted real family (as depicted in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”), the Millers are stable middle-class citizens. The father, Nat Miller (Randall Newsome), is a good man who runs the local newspaper, has no truck with intolerance, and is inclined to indulge his children even when called upon to mete out punishment. Nat’s wife of many years, Essie (Ora Jones), enjoys a teasing relationship with her husband, keeps the household running, and tries to be stricter with the their four kids: 19-year-old Arthur (Travis A. Knight), a student at Yale; 17-year-old Richard (Niall Cunningham), who just graduated high school and is going to Yale in the fall; flirty 15-year-old Mildred (Rochelle Therrien), and 11-year-old Tommy (Matthew Abraham).

While Nat and Essie are happily married, their siblings, who are living with them, were engaged years ago but will never wed. That’s because Essie’s brother, 45-year-old Sid Davis (Larry Bates), is an alcoholic with a gambling problem, and Lily (Kate Fry), Nat’s 42-year-old schoolteacher sister, refuses to marry him unless he stops drinking, though she clearly has great affection for him, and he still loves her.

The love at the center of the play, though, is that of young Richard for Muriel McComber (Ayssette Muñoz). An opinionated, intellectually rebellious teenager (and stand-in for O’Neill) who reads books by Oscar Wilde, Ibsen, Swinburne, and Omar Khayyam (the “Rubaiyat,” source of the play’s title, is his favorite) that upset his mother, Richard quotes romantic poetry to the girl he says he intends to marry—and rebukes for being “afraid of life.” When her father, David McComber (Ricardo Gutierrez), finds some of the poems, he personally delivers a break-up note from her to Nat to give to his son.

Shattered by the note, the furious Richard impetuously decides to “show them all” by going drinking with Arthur’s schoolmate, Wint Selby (Will Allen), and while the older boy is upstairs at the dive of ill repute with one prostitute, Richard is in the bar with the pretty but loud Belle (Amanda Drinkall), who tries to seduce him and almost succeeds. He ends up soused and getting kicked out for trying to defend her honor to a salesman (Bret Tuomi).

The repercussions from Richard’s drunken evening could be dire—but they’re not. Frantically worried by his absence, Essie wants Nat to severely discipline him when she sees the state he comes home in, but her anger dissipates by morning, and she can’t even bear to wake him. His father stumbles awkwardly through facts-of-life talk. Richard says he has no intention of repeating the incident, not for moral reasons, but because it didn’t make him happy. Then he learns that Muriel’s father made her write that note and, even though he’s been grounded as punishment, he goes off to meet her.

Their meeting, fraught with the push-pull that’s a combination of passionate declarations and heated recriminations, is supposed to typify the tempestuousness of young love, but it also is disturbing in a play that’s mostly funny and genteel. Richard’s behavior towards Muriel is mean, even sexist, and that disparaging attitude towards women crops up elsewhere, too. True, Muriel is manipulative, and the women have a few negative things to say about the men, but they don’t seem to be as tinged with genuine disdain. I don’t know whether to blame O’Neill, Scott, or the time the play was written, but the ill will certainly is there.

Other than that, the style of the show is somewhere between naturalistic and nostalgic. The characters aren’t completely believable as real people, but their heightened reality sometimes reveals deeper truths. Cunningham, who is making his Goodman debut, is perfect as Richard. He looks very young and innocent, with a mop of curly red hair, and conveys all the absolute conviction, anguish, and vulnerability of youth. Other standouts include Newsome as Nat, the father anyone would want; Jones as Essie, who fusses without being too overbearing, and Fry as Lily, who hide her sadness under a cheerful, helpful demeanor. Bri Sudia steals her every scene in the minor role of Norah, the Irish maid.

The design reflects the overall style. Todd Rosenthal’s sideways slanting dining room set done in pastels sits in the middle of the stage with doors leading to abstract suggestions of the rest of the house. Flanked by sand and row boats, it’s evocatively lit by Aaron Spivey. Amy Clark’s costumes are of the period without being slavish, and Richard Woodbury’s sound design adds atmosphere.

I must admit that I found much of the long first half of “Ah, Wilderness!” so dated and talky, I couldn’t understand exactly why Goodman wanted to stage it, but by the super-sweet ending, I was hooked. It’s sentimental to be sure, but there is something to be said for a comforting past, even if it is imagined.