Chicago Theater Review: AH, WILDERNESS! (Goodman)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 27, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


It’s a dramatic “one-off”: The same Connecticut domicile supplies the site of two enormously different plays by the same author. If Eugene O’Neill imagined a darker youth than his actual childhood in Long Day’s Journey into Night (a tragicomedy the playwright never meant to be seen), he doles out nostalgia for a happy childhood he never knew in his only comedy Ah, Wilderness! (which was very much meant to be produced).

Glimpsed on an eventful Independence Day circa 1906, this New England clan consists of a well-tempered father, a fussbudget mother, an irascible if alcoholic uncle, bratty siblings, and Richard, the author’s surrogate, a misunderstood literary lad awkwardly in love with Muriel, the girl next door. They are, they say and know, surrounded by love.

The seeds of countless ‘50s sitcoms were planted by this play in 1933. Like Beyond the Horizon, O’Neill’s first produced play, this gentler comedy is about coming of age by testing the limits that families can impose. It feels like a memory in the making but equally sparkles with first-person, present-tense immediacy. We’re looking back and looking forward, much like The Glass Menagerie, Our Town, and Awake and Sing!.

The sweetness isn’t saccharine in Steve Scott’s well-felt staging, the closing offering in Goodman Theatre’s current season. Perfectly placed in a genteel Edwardian parlor (mysteriously located in Todd Rosenthal’s huge blue box and sky-wide cyclorama), it’s beautifully burnished in glowing wood and period embellishments.

Apart from outward accuracy, we really believe that these folks are family who know each other from the inside out. Intensely real, never succumbing to the vaudevillian excesses potentially built into their parts, Scott’s 15-member ensemble seem to have spent years accommodating each other in New London’s famous “Monte Cristo Cottage.” (All these happy recollections, we must never forget, occurred in the same hillside home as did the bitter ones in O’Neill’s great last play, haunted by foghorns, alcoholism, tuberculosis and drug addiction—which to believe is in the heart of the beholder.)

As Richard, a teenager who appropriately declares his independence on the Fourth of July, red-headed Niall Cunningham balances this unfledged lad’s untested idealism against his dangerous curiosity. This Richard is ever astonished at how many first feelings he’s suddenly confronting or embracing. He’s not ready to fly from the nest, but his much-criticized interest in Wilde, Swinburne, Kipling, and Omar Khayyam betray a writer in the making, eager for a different setting. His “coming-of-age” mantra, which he will passionately impart to his first love Muriel, is not to fear life, despite—or perhaps because of—the examples of half-heartedness around them.

A good excess, Richard’s impetuousness is patiently checked by Randall Newsome as the dithering and epigrammatic father, a proper publisher and civic ornament. Offering her own domesticating touch near the end, Ayssette Muñoz as Richard’s cautious sweetheart Muriel McComber schools him in a very different way. The humor is fueled by the innocence of young lovers reinventing romance while the audience chuckles, knowing just how ordinary this life-altering obsession really is.

Despite the sentiment that’s always near the surface, there’s seldom a false note in this open-hearted and utterly uncondescending revival. It achieves authenticity, but not hilarity, with Larry Bates as the family drunk whom everyone “enables” (his caught-in-the-crossfire look is priceless). Most poignantly, Kate Fry as his too-tested lady love delivers an encyclopedia in quiet desperation. Though this demure spinster broke off her engagement to Sid 16 years before, she’s still trying to do it even now. Sadly or sweetly, that’s love. Ora Jones is the ultimate manifestation of maternal-mindedness as Essie, Richard’s patently protective mom.

In a cunning comic turn, Amanda Drinkwater bubbles over as a tart-tongued floozy at the notorious Pleasant Beach House. Unwittingly, she gives Richard a swell lesson in why Muriel is a much better deal. Clumsy with Richard’s thwarted lust and galloping guilt, their very unromantic tryst—a once-painful incident now softened by memory—is a vaudeville gem worthy of the Orpheum circuit.

Full of feeling but never fluff, this summer-rich show works on most levels. Given O’Neill’s many laughs of recognition, it could be funnier—but that might make it less real. It’s a Procrustean choice for any director. In any case it’s a perfectly accessible entry point for anyone who might be intimidated by the excesses of O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, Strange Interlude, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and, of course, The Iceman Cometh. The “pipe dreams” in this busy homestead belong to everyone.

photos by Liz Lauren

Ah, Wilderness!
Goodman Theatre
Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
ends on July 23, 2017
for tickets, call 312.443.3800
or visit Goodman Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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