by Michael J. Vaughn
Once in a great while, you leave the theater thinking what a grand, uncontrollable thing life is, feeling enlarged by the simple experience of sitting in a dark place listening to people tell their stories. Such a case: TheatreWorks' revival of Eugene O'Neill's only comedy, "Ah, Wilderness!" If Artistic Director Robert Kelley and company continue producing works this seamless and entertaining, their 25th season will be silver, indeed. On many lists of America's greatest playwrights O'Neill shares top billing with Tennessee Williams, yet his plays are rarely produced. Blame it on Wagnerian length, or an unfashionable bent for tragedy, but after 10 years and some 300 productions, this is my first review of an O'Neill play.
It makes sense, too, that of all of O'Neill's works ("Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Moon for the Misbegotten," "The Iceman Cometh," "Mourning Becomes Electra"), "Ah, Wilderness!" gets produced most often. The play checks in at less than three hours, and operates on an ideal plane far from the dark eddies of his tragic works, inspired by his happy days with his family at their summer home in New London, Conn., around 1912.
O'Neill takes an idealized version of his young self and calls him Richard Miller, a young man caught in the not unusual tug-of-war between first love, radical ideas and loyalty to his family. Over a Fourth of July holiday, the racy, Bohemian love poems he writes to his girl Muriel (Susan Papa) throw him into a triangle of adults all seeking to prod him in separate directions: his father Nat, a local newspaperman who wants to hone his son's morals without closing his mind; his overprotective, laughably timid mother Essie (Linda Hoy), who simply doesn't want any trouble, and Muriel's snippy, prudish father, David McComber, who wants the little socialist far away from his dear daughter.
The examples of sublimely crafted scenes in O'Neill's comedy are too numerous to mention here, but a few are delivered with a special flair. Jim Johnson's pinched-faced, Don Knotts-like caricature of David McComber was inspired, and earned its own round of applause during the opening act. TheatreWorks regular George Ward as Richard's incorrigible Uncle Sid came up with a fine rendition of the benign, clownish drunk, almost enough to balance all the surly drunks elsewhere in O'Neill's canon.
Edward Sarafian's warm-hearted Nat Miller made a gem of a performance, but never more so than in the most divinely wrought nervous-father-trying-to-explain-the-facts-of-life scene you've ever experienced, a veritable labyrinth of stops, starts and stammers. And Darren Bridgett as Richard provided the glue for all the pieces, reflecting every bit of confusion, false bravado and idealism that makes male adolescence such a laughable and heartbreaking passage.
Director Kelley has worked his ensemble's timing to a lightning-fast pitch, providing inspired pieces of direction such as the helter-skelter, silent-film assemblage of Act Three and the spotlight frozen over Richard's exits and entrances, which drives home the aura of nostalgia (the productions' lighting designer is John G. Rathman). Give credit, too, to John Wilson's sets, a comfortable Connecticut front yard you can really sink your heart into, and a barroom scene that levitates neatly into the rafters.
When some theater company somewhere gets truly daring, they'll pair "Ah, Wilderness!" with its dark twin "Long Day's Journey Into Night," which, unfortunately for the playwright, was a more accurate portrayal of his upbringing. Until then, I give thanks that TheatreWorks was the company to bring me my first serving of Eugene O'Neill.
When: Through Aug. 21
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
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