Presented by Blackfriars Repertory Theatre and The Storm Theatre at The Sheen Center, Ah, Wilderness!, Eugene O’Neill’s coming-of-age three-act comedy, offers an opportunity for diehard fans of the American realist playwright to see one of his few works in the genre. But what was intended to be funny, nostalgic, and romantic during the era in which it was written (1932) now seems dated, clichéd, and overbaked, and provides good reason why O’Neill is better known for his heartrending dramas.
The turn-of-the-century semi-autobiographical narrative is set in small-town Connecticut on the 4th of July, 1906, at the intersection of sixteen-year-old Richard Miller’s first love, love of literature, and first taste of liquor. The letters he writes to Muriel, the object of his affection and the recipient of his youthful musings on poetry, politics, life, and romance, send him, his close-knit family, and their intertwined local community into a tailspin.
Under the slow-paced direction of Peter Dobbins – including opening the show with an unnecessary momentary view of the young bibliophile reading (though cleverly introduced by a vintage recording of “Beautiful Dreamer”), and an extended combative dinner with his ostensibly loving but dysfunctional family (picking at obviously plastic lobsters) – the casts’ delivery of the outdated dialogue, idiosyncratic slang, and old-fashioned values, forced laughter and feigned intoxication is generally stilted and unnatural. Combined with O’Neill’s offensive ethnic and gender-based stereotypes (e.g., the drunken uncle, the nagging housewife, the bar-room floozy), the period piece, at present, is more cringe-worthy than humorous.
Among the most compelling moments of the production are the heartfelt recitations of passages from beloved literary classics by Peter Atkinson, who stars as the starry-eyed adolescent Richard (the title of the play is based on a line from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám), his hormonally-charged night-time rendezvous with Muriel (the glowing Megan McDevitt), and his ejection from a disreputable tavern in town by the bartender (Marshall Taylor Thurman – who doubles effectively as the libertine Wint Selby – sporting a spot-on accent and giving Richard a perfectly executed heave-ho from the bar).
In a brief but welcome musical interlude, Sean Cleary, as Richard’s older brother Arthur, contributes his impressive singing voice to entertain the family and to defuse their tensions, accompanied on upright piano by younger sister Millie, portrayed with spunk by Heather Olsen. And there are also some keen observations in the recognition that laughing, making excuses, and forgiving alcoholism and the bad behavior it induces should not be seen as loving, but enabling, and that open and honest communication between parents and children experiencing growing pains is usually more effective than punitive discipline.
Historicizing costumes by Sarah Thea Craig and a set with Victorian-style furnishings by Daniel Prosky evoke the early years of the 20th century, but mostly dark projections on a large screen behind, used to establish the locales, jarringly contrast present-day technology with the play’s outmoded vision.
Despite the renown of its author, the current production of Ah, Wilderness! begs the question, “Why?” This is one O’Neill play that would have been better left in the vaults.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 25 minutes, including an intermission.