‘Ah, Wilderness’ at Arena Stage by Amanda Gunther

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A little slice of life is what you will find at Arena Stage’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness. This joyous and truthful depiction of American family life at the turn of the 20th century will keep audiences engrossed as the story explores the simple things that anyone who has a family can relate to. Directed by Kyle Donnelly, this production kicks off the two month The Eugene O’Neill Festival at being celebrated in the Washington DC area. The play translates to modern families with recognizable stock characters – the doting but firm mother, the perpetually drunk uncle, the mischievous little brother, the middle son struck in love; all of these familiar characters come to life on the stage in a quaint ‘day-in-the-life-of’ type story.

June Schreiner (Muriel McComber) and William Patrick Riley (Richard) in 'Ah, Wilderness!' Photo by Scott Suchman.

Ah, Wilderness is being performed in-the-round in Arena Stage’s Fichandler Theatre. Scenic Designer Katie Edmunds works together with Lighting Designer Russell Champa to create extraordinary effects of daytime, nighttime, indoors and outdoors all in one enclosed space without having to drag the audience through elaborate set changes or time consuming pauses. One of the most stunning effects created occurs during a scene of burgeoning romance where the stars descend from the ceiling, the moon ascends from the stage floor and the whole set is bathed in the illusion of a darkened summer’s eve; the perfect atmosphere for burgeoning love between young Muriel (June Schreiner) and Richard (William Patrick Riley.)

The time period is easily indicated in the costumes the actors don, but none more clearly than a brief scene mid-morning on the fourth of July when the family is preparing to go out for a drive as one of the day’s many celebratory activities. Costume Designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins gets everyone in full riding coats, enormous bonnets with lace wrapped under the chin for the women, and driving goggles. There are other subtleties in the costuming that really enhance the show to draw the audience into the early 20th century, like the broad Yale shirt and cardigan worn by Arthur (Davis Chandler Hasty) and the simple girlish one-piece blue dress worn by Mildred (Talisa Friedman.)
Director Kyle Donnelly really helped the actors achieve a raw truth when presenting O’Neill’s characters to the stage. O’Neill writes very basic characters whose depth comes from their interactions and relationship with others. These characters form simple relationships; those that are familiar to every family, and the actors make these relationships relatable to the audiences; their conversations sound realistic rather than contrived. Watching this show is almost like lifting the roof off of a household and gazing down at the happenings inside. It is well paced, moves quickly and keeps the audience captivated with laughs and touching moments enough to fully enjoy the entire production.

(L to R) Kimberly Schraf (Lily Miller), Nancy Robinette (Essie), William Patrick Riley (Richard), Talisa Friedman (Mildred), and Jonathan Lincoln Fried (Sid Davis). Photo by Scott Suchman.

We see brief snippets of striking characters whose appearances are quick but remarkable. Old Man McComber (Leo Erickson) is the epitome of a cantankerous old man who is over protective of his young innocent daughter, Muriel (June Schreiner) whose vocal outburst are indicative of a youth enslaved by puppy love. While Mildred (Talisa Friedman) masters the role of a bratty younger sister who is snotty to her older brothers but perfectly respectable in the presence of her parents. All of these minor instances of characters help to strengthen the family dynamic that builds throughout the show. The one character I wish we’d seen a bit more of was Wint (James Flanagan.) He slides onto the stage for a quick moment late in Act I, slick and sleazy like an oil pit. Flanagan lets the words ooze from his mouth, a slimy little character with a nervous disposition and a dishonest air about him that radiates from the actor’s body.

The characters continue to play to the stereotypes of their stock when we encounter Belle (Pearl Rhein) the floozy from the saloon. She’s crass and speaks poorly as you would expect a strumpet of the street to speak; a real tart as she flings herself about the bar in a very un-ladylike manner. Rhein interacts with the Irish Barkeep (also played by Flanagan) and Richard (William Patrick Riley) in two drastically different approaches; belting out threats with over the top anger to Flanagan and trying to charm her way into Riley’s pants with sultry teasing comments and shifts of her body over the table and into his chair. She makes for a truly entertaining character even if she isn’t a part of the family.

But it’s the family relationships that drive this story through its quick pace. We see an honest marriage of many years between Nat (Rick Foucheux) and Essie (Nancy Robinette.) They have meaningful conversations about their children, quick snappy fights over petty things and more serious things, but their love shines clear in the little looks they exchange or the gentle words they pass between them. Both Foucheux and Robinette have developed strong relationships with the children in the show. Foucheux plays a fatherly figure, understanding but firm when addressing Richard (Riley) over matters of love and life. While Robinette is a doting mother, kind to her younger children but commanding when addressing them at the dinner table in regards to etiquette. The pair drives the show with their constant narration of life through their conversations.

The best character acting comes during the dinner scene where Sid (Jonathan Lincoln Fried) comes stumbling in drunk. Fried evokes the notion of soused by using his full body to stumble around the stage, falling over his own feet and botching simple actions like trying to feed himself soup. His speech is the perfect combination of slurred and nonsensical while being stilted yet still understandable. His portrayal of the typical drunk uncle is immaculate and hysterical while all the other shenanigans of dinner play out during this scene.

Rick Foucheux (Nat Miller) and Nancy Robinette (Essie). Photo by Scott Suchman.

And we find the original ‘emo’ kid in Richard (William Patrick Riley.) He prostrates himself on the settee during moments of life ending peril over losing the love of his life at the sweet age of seventeen. His constant physical expressions of doom and despair over lost love are comical and flared with dramatic emphasis – creating a believable moody teenager who thinks he knows it all in the ways of the world in regards to love. Riley has a powerful voice which he uses to express his roller coaster of emotions throughout the show and each interaction with other characters proves more than entertaining. He falls into moment of subdued emotional turmoil as easily as he explodes with emotional outbursts. Riley is the main focus of the show and his performance is so engaging that he takes the audience along with him on his journey of discovering the truth about himself, his convictions, and his notions of love.

So enjoy Ah, Wilderness! Time flies by so quickly during this happy moment of life at Arena Stage.

Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission and one 5-minute pause.

Ah, Wilderness plays through April 8, 2012 at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington DC. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.