Trees get in the way of the forest in Ah, Wilderness!
Thursday, July 17, 2003
Photo: Troy Osteraa and Michaela Petrovich portray young love in O''Neill''s nostalgic Ah, Wilderness!
Eugene O''Neill could well be America''s greatest playwright. His name conjures images of excruciating yet profound insights into the psyches of human beings overwhelmed by the challenge of living. With Ah, Wilderness!, O''Neill makes his only foray into the world of comedy. Though taking a break from his usual themes and characters, this script maintains the deep insight into humanity that marks his other plays.
Ah, Wilderness! is a warm and loving look at middle-class life in "large small-town America." It is a look at a childhood that O''Neill could live only in his imagination; "the way I would have liked my childhood to have been," he wrote.
On July 4, 1906, sensitive 17-year-old Richard Miller declares his independence from his seemingly idyllic, oh-so-bourgeois family. He has been delving into the works of Omar Khayyam, Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, and has been spouting half-digested anarchist slogans and erotic love poetry. He yearns to experience the worlds of truth his poet role models have sketched for him.
Richard is clearly modeled on the young aspiring writer Eugene O''Neill, but while O''Neill''s family was incapable of providing him with love and support through his rebellious years, Richard''s family has plenty of both. Though at first his parents, especially his mother, seem narrow-minded and even bigoted, we come to see their open-mindedness: There is no action committed that cannot be forgiven. As Richard''s father says, "We are surrounded by love." A happy ending is guaranteed.
The current production at The Western Stage is somewhat disappointing. The play is staged in the Studio Theatre, an intimate and wonderful space whose idiosyncrasies continue to confound directors. Though the audience sits on three sides of the stage, director Stephanie Courtney has inexplicably staged the show in the round, ensuring that at any given time, two-thirds of her audience is unable to see the faces of the actors. Though mostly simply a nuisance, this problem becomes downright irritating during important two-person scenes when each actor is obscuring the other. It is, after all, nuance of gesture and facial expression, not words alone, which communicate the deepest meaning.
None of the actors seems to feel they can trust O''Neill''s words to do their work. Rather, they overact, forcing attitude or emotion to the point that the characters are no longer believable. Troy Osteraa as Richard Miller, for example, adopts a generic "rebellious teenager" tone for virtually all of his lines. But from Richard''s point of view, he is not being rebellious, he is simply trying to open his family''s eyes to the undeniable truths which he is privy to, but which they are too blind to spot.
Eleanor Wylde as Aunt Lily Miller and Suzanne Sturn as mother Essie Miller are inclined to posture and sing their lines. There is little sense of connection between them and any of the other characters.
Though at times also rather unconnected to the world around him, Peter Eberhardt as alcoholic Uncle Sid is a bright presence. His drunken stand-up routine at the dinner table, complete with lobster, is charming and very funny. It is easy to understand why the family loves him.
Also lovely are Sara England as little sister Mildred and Michaela Petrovich as Richard''s girlfriend Muriel. These young women, both high school students, provide a welcome burst of artlessness and sincerity.
Ah, Wilderness! is a gentle call to unconditional love. The Western Stage''s three-hour production, though not without some good chuckles, is finally too forced and mannered to be a faithful representation of O''Neill''s would-be childhood.