As a way of plugging in to the national conversation addressing issues of change in the United States, this highly regarded regional not-for-profit theatre has put several plays in to its current season. Beginning with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Robert Schenkkan political drama All The Way, which deals with racially charged issues confronted by President Lyndon Johnson after the murder of President Kennedy, it was followed up with Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy Ah, Wilderness! which explores a simpler America in 1906, dealing as it does in a romantic way with a depiction of family life as O”Neill wished it to be.
Later entries are Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? dealing with the complexities of love in a world that is is racially prejudiced and Disgraced – another Pulitzer Prize winner, this one by Ayad Akhtar, which brings us to the present day, dealing with the hard issues of religious heritage and belonging. It’s an impressive agenda for one theatre’s one season, so ignoring warnings of unseasonable cold weather in northern Florida, I flew down to Sarasota to have a look at this renowned company, a first visit for me.
I stayed long enough to see the first two offerings of the winter Rep season, All The Way and Ah, Wilderness and I’m delighted to report that both productions are remarkable. Both are ambitious plays with large casts — the Johnson story takes some 30 actors, many of them playing two and three roles. The O’Neill comedy requires 17. Some of the players are currently enrolled in the acting school at Florida State University and they are integrated into the various casts in roles that relate to the level of their education. They begin by understudying and joining the ensembles, second year students are given small roles, and third year students get a crack at more prominent parts. Occasionally, as in the case of Tom Harney, a third year student got a break. He is playing the leading role of Richard Miller in Ah,Wilderness! a character who is eighteen years old.
The Wilderness director, Greg Leaming, describes the play as, “more a dream of what family could be, a fantasy in every respect.” Even this romantic, sentimental, uplifting comedy has elements of the darker side of this vision. The play is certainly a comedy, and very sweet, but O’Neill couldn’t help but lay in an understated air of bitterness and regret. Everything ends happily, for he was determined it would, but dimming the light now and then was the only way he was capable of writing a sentimental story. He would one day write his Long Day’s Journey Into Night, set in the same time period and setting but so very much more hopeless in its overall view.
The cast is top-notch. Mom and Dad, Aunt Essie and Uncle Sid are the four adults who must cope with life’s little annoyances like Richard’s adolescent dramatization of his banishment from the home of his teenage love, Muriel McComber, because her father thinks she’s far too young to be goin’ steady or worse — gettin’ hitched. Though the play only covers two days of the July 4th weekend, you can be certain master puppeteer O’Neill will straighten everyone out before the holiday is over.
A more difficult problem to solve is Essie’s troubling relationship with Sid, whom she loves but cannot consider seriously because he is an unreliable drunk and she can’t live with that. With these two, the weekend brings a little hope and a lot of affectionate laughter. The young actor Tom Harney has all the earnestness and youthful appeal to pull off Richard, who is something of a goof ball. It’s interesting to note that the role was played in the original production in 1933 by Elisha Cook, Jr. who went on to films where he played strange little misfits in such works as The Maltese Falcon and They Won’t Forget. For two decades or more, Cook appeared in dozens of film and TV shows. I’m not suggesting that will happen to young Mr. Harney, but I hope his lovely performance augurs well for the length of his career.
For the rest, everyone is fine. Steven Kemp has designed a set that floats and flies but still manages to convey everything from Home to other parts of the quaint village of New London where O’Neill actually spent a great deal of his young life with a drug addicted mother and alcoholic father. He did not allow his play about that reality to be performed until after his death. It has since been honored as one of his master works.
Ah, Wilderness! plays through April 10, 2016 at Asolo Repertory Theatre – 5555 North Tamiami Trail, in Sarasota, Florida. For tickets, call the box office at (941) 351-8000 or (800) 361-8388, or purchase them online.
All The Way is cut from a different cloth. Emily Sophia Knapp is its director, and she has been associated with it since its first workshop in 2011. Its premiere as a full play was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012. Through the years, the director tells us “the core of the piece has remained the same. LBJ strong arms and manipulates and inspires his way through a fight to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and win a presidential election after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in ’63 catapulted Mr. Johnson into the White House. And the play has always fixed on and illuminated the brutal compromises that occur when power, politics and morality meet.”
You can’t make this play work without a star performer in the central role. It’s he who drives the play from its opening moment to its final blackout. In Nick Wyman, a venerable character actor who has enriched such varied roles as the Opera Manager in Phantom of the Opera, Monsieur Threnardier in Les Miserables to Officer O’Reilly in The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 (full disclosure; I was in that one and I learned a lot about how to play less rather than more in a farce from Nick Wyman).
A proud 40-year member of Actors’ Equity, he recently completed two terms as President of that union, during which time his work as actor was limited by his duties to the Union. Now he returns to the stage in a role that brought much praise on Broadway (and a Tony Award) to Brian Cranston.
Wyman’s “Johnson” has authority, humor, charm, principal, and a core decency that serves him well in the Oval Office and at home with his Lady Bird who stuck with him from the beginning. He is the leader of the pack, as President and as central player, and that kind of magic trickles down to his supporting cast. There really are too many major characters and masterful performances to mention, but David Breitbarth, William Dick, Karl Hamilton, Tyler Abercrumbie, and Denise Cormier come to mind.
Please consider this a rave review for an ensemble of players that would do its company proud on any stage in the world.
Ms. Knapp has managed to control her crowd, to use it well, to keep the focus on the right players so that this complex tale is delivered to us clearly and with great force. It covers Novermber 23, 1963 when President Kennedy was shot to November 3, 1964 when JBJ was elected President with the greatest percentage of the total popular vote (61%) ever attained by a Presidential candidate. After witnessing the play, and the lovely performance of it from the star on down, we can understand and appreciate how that happened.
All the Way plays through April 9, 2016 at Asolo Repertory Theatre – 5555 North Tamiami Trail, in Sarasota, Florida. For tickets, call the box office at (941) 351-8000 or (800) 361-8388, or purchase them online.
Nick Wyman: Character Actor in a Star Role as LBJ in ‘All the Way’ by Richard Seff.
Nick Wyman’s website.