New Village Arts presents O’Neill’s only comedy, “Ah, Wilderness”
Maybe you, like my husband, are tired of dysfunctional families in dramas (and even comedies) on stage and screen. Well, have I got a play for you! A nice, patriotic slice of family life, set in 1906 on the 4th of July.
The Millers are a middle-class clan in small-town Connecticut. They all get along. They laugh at their own foibles. The children are good kids who respect their parents. The extended family lives with them. Only briefly, at the outset, the adolescent who fancies himself something of an anarchist rails against the complacency, even taking aim at Independence Day.
“There is no liberty !, ” he proclaims. “This country is not the home of the brave; it is the home of the slave — the wage-slave, ground under the heel of the capitalist class.” Fair enough, since he’s been reading ‘scandalous’ literature (according to his alarmed mother): the plays of Shaw, Wilde and Ibsen; the poetry of Swinburne and Omar Khayyam (from whose “ Rubaiyat ” the play’s title comes).
“Ah, Wilderness” is Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, written in a single month in 1932, to extol the virtues of a simpler time, a happy home. Most of the Nobel laureate’s dark, dysfunctional family sagas were autobiographical, but this one, he said, was “a sort of wishing out loud… the way I would have liked my childhood to have been.” If only he – or any of us – had a set of relentlessly loving, protective and understanding parents like these.
The play feels feather-light. Not much happens in the course of 24 hours. But though O’Neill hangs a bright sun in the morning and a gloriously full moon at night, there is a trace of darkness in the Miller abode, and a foreshadowing of the playwright’s tragic dramas to come.
It’s in the secondary characters and their subplot. Mrs. Miller’s brother, the charming, comical alcoholic, Sid, is a dissolute, “downtrodden newspaper man.” He used to have a romantic relationship with Mr. Miller’s spinster sister, Lily, who seems mellow on the outside but is roiling inside with regret, repression and disappointment, having turned down Sid’s repeated proposals because of his inveterate drinking and gambling. These seem to be precursors of the protagonists in “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” where the drunken underachiever is a stand-in for the playwright himself.
But Sid’s inebriated antics are strictly played for comedy here. The main focus is on 17 year-old Richard. It’s his coming-of-age story. He loves a girl and she loves him back. But when he starts sending her letters quoting all those “blasphemous” poets, Muriel’s father refuses to allow her to see this impudent, corrupting young whippersnapper ever again. When he receives a letter from Muriel breaking off their relationship, Richard is devastated.
As the idealistic, Yale-bound intellectual he is, he yearns to explore all life has to offer. In one night, he goes to a sleazy bar, gets his first kiss (from a prostitute), experiences his first drunken stupor and his first barroom brawl. But he comes back home, is forgiven his trespasses, reconciles with Muriel and all’s right with the world.
The play hasn’t been produced in San Diego for decades, partly because of its large cast. But this 11th season of New Village Arts is the year of The Ensemble, when the same 14 actors will appear in all seven shows.
Director Amanda Sitton doesn’t seem to have fully trusted the play. Though she (mercifully) cut it down from four acts and four hours to two (acts and hours), she apparently felt compelled to add more funny ‘business’ – a near-blind maid whom everyone scrambles to protect from tripping, breaking or spilling. And there’s a fantasy ‘dance of love’ that surrounds the reconciled young couple just before the end of the play. The former works better than the latter, but neither is really necessary.
The design (Tim Wallace) is minimalist Americana, but the cast’s inter-scene moving of set pieces becomes distracting at times. The lighting (Christopher Renda) is aptly wistful and the costumes (Dana Case and Kristianne Kurner) are period-perfect.
The ensemble is delightful overall, though there is a bit of scenery-chewing, and the two kids (Jonah Gercke and Roma Watkins, who seems way too young for the 14-15 year old she’s playing) tend to speed through or swallow their lines.
Kristianne Kurner and Manny Fernandes make for a wonderfully grounded and affectionate couple, really ideal (and idealized) parents. Daren Scott is hilarious as drunken Sid, though perhaps his plight could be made a tad more poignant. Dana Case brings a controlled, tensile lightness and sadness to Lily.
Kelly Iversen is amusing in three roles: the coke-bottle-glasses-wearing maid, the blonde tart and Muriel, Richard’s ultra-naïve, slightly ditsy girlfriend. With his dimples, broad smile and impressive physical agility, Kyle Lucy is irresistible as the volatile Richard, who is alternately brooding, ecstatic, poetic, bombastic and suicidal: the prototype of angst-ridden, hormone-driven adolescence. John DeCarlo , Adam Brick and Jack Missett contribute effective performances.
There isn’t much depth here, just a slightly faded snapshot of a time long gone. But nostalgia goes with summertime like a sloe gin fizz.
“Ah, Wilderness” runs through 8/28 at New Village Arts Theatre.
Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm; Saturday at 3pm and Sunday at 2pm.
Tickets ($27-32) are available at 760-433-3245 or www.newvillagearts.org