Los Angeles Theater Review: AH, WILDERNESS! (Actors Co-op)

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by Jesse David Corti on September 12, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

AH, GOOD THEATER!

Ah, Wilderness! is Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning O’Neill’s only comedy, and he describes it as, “a wistful recollection…the kind of childhood I wished I had growing up.” One can certainly see the parallels between what must’ve been a young O’Neill and the character of Richard Miller as Wilderness also provides a rose-colored lens into his adolescent life. Wilderness takes place on America’s birthday, the 4th of July 1906, and centers on Richard Miller’s coming of age. He is stuck in a family where Shaw is shunned, Socialism considered ungodly, and drunkenness the greatest sin of all. Richard’s enjoyment of Shaw and socialist ideals strains the relationship he has with his parents. He also has a deep affection for Muriel McComber, a sweet girl who lives just down the way, but he’s forbidden to share a relationship with her because her father disapproves of Richard’s character for sharing passionate verses with his daughter. What’s a liberal free-thinker to do when trapped by an environment of conformity and conservatism? Boldly go forward, of course.

Jesse David Corti’s Stage and Cinema Los Angeles review of AH, WILDERNESS! at Actor’s Co-op

Written in 1933, the play was adapted for the screen in 1935, and as a musical titled Take Me Along (1959), for which Jackie Gleason won a Tony award for portraying Richard’s drunk uncle, Sid. In this 2013 production at the Actor’s Co-op, Thom Babbes takes the reins and presents a faithful, endearingly wholesome production of a difficult piece. The buoyant ensemble, full of children and adults, is anchored by the startlingly excellent adolescent Nicholas Podany as Richard Miller.

Jesse David Corti’s Stage and Cinema Los Angeles review of AH, WILDERNESS! at Actor’s Co-op

Podany and Townsend Coleman stand out as the ensemble’s best performers as Richard Miller and Uncle Sid, respectively. Richard is a difficult role for a teenager to take on, and at 16 years of age, Podany makes his performance memorable, engaging, and endearing; it’s quite stunning. He has to play a frustrated romancer, a loving yet contentious son, and a drunk—sometimes all at once, which he handles marvelously. Uncle Sid has some great lines, but Coleman’s performance stands out because he goes beyond drunken showmanship and layers his portrayal with the tragic elements of his alcoholism. His self-awareness among his family and friends of his tragedy make his character sympathetic, and Coleman’s nuances make his performance memorable.

Jesse David Corti’s Stage and Cinema Los Angeles review of AH, WILDERNESS! at Actor’s Co-op

Melody Hollis also deserves plaudits as Richard’s love interest, Muriel, portraying the feminine yet strong girl mature beyond her years yet wet behind the ears. One scene between her and Richard is excellently executed, and a fair share of credit belongs to Babbes’ staging and direction. Phil Crowley exercises a James Stewart-like elastic ease as Nat, a newspaper editor-in-chief and patriarch of the Miller family. Jodi Carlisle plays Essie Miller, Nat’s supportive wife and strict mother.

Jesse David Corti’s Stage and Cinema Los Angeles review of AH, WILDERNESS! at Actor’s Co-op

The design elements are impressive for the tight, cramped space of the Crossley Theatre. Shon Leblanc’s American turn-of-the-century costumes are elegant and gorgeous. Lights by Bill E. Kickbush deftly illuminate the intimate nature of this story, whether the scene is a family dinner at home, a back-room brothel, or a moonlit lake. The sets by Mark Henderson and Tim Farmer are astonishing for their size in spite of the small space, and a rotating stage allows for the many locations. The home is beautifully furnished, the brothel is appropriately dilapidated, and the lake is smartly presented. However, my one gripe in the design department would have to be the wigs by Krys Fehervari; some of the bouffant hair looks cartoonish in this otherwise naturalistic comedy—it feels sorely out of place and at times, awfully distracting.

Jesse David Corti’s Stage and Cinema Los Angeles review of AH, WILDERNESS! at Actor’s Co-op

Babbes does a superb job of directing this deceptively complex work. It’s a two and a half hour comedy with two intermissions that can become tedious or exhausting in a less capable director’s hands. His well-cast, adept ensemble of all ages adroitly handles serious drama and daffy comedy with equal aplomb. Babbes puts on a great, sweet-hearted show that doesn’t drip with sentimentality. Ah, Wilderness! is a most welcome diversion.

Jesse David Corti’s Stage and Cinema Los Angeles review of AH, WILDERNESS! at Actor’s Co-op

photos by Lindsay Schnebly

Ah, Wilderness!
Actors Co-op Crossley Theatre
on the grounds of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood
scheduled to end on October 13, 2013
for tickets, call (323) 462-8460, ext. 300 or visit http://www.ActorsCo-op.org

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