Arena Stage Ah, Wilderness!By Bob Ashby • Mar 19th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Arena Stage-Fichandler Theatre, Washington DC
Through April 8th
2:40 with one intermission and one pause
$55-$80 (+ fees)
Reviewed March 15th, 2012
Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, shares the universe orchestrated by Charles Ives: early 20th century small-city Connecticut, patriotic, largely white and northern European, optimistic, Teddy Roosevelt-energetic, deeply American to its core. Like Ives’ Fourth of July, Ah, Wilderness! celebrates — with what O’Neill explicitly calls nostalgia — an America of particularly precious memory, long vanished from the scene but still powerful in Americans’ dreams of themselves as a people. Director Kyle Donnelly and music director Michael Roth don’t use any of Ives’ music in scoring the show, but in their use of period or period-style songs to set the scenes, sung and played by members of the cast, they are breathing the same air as Ives, who made superb use of folk and popular melodies in his symphonic works.
Ah, Wilderness! begins on July 4, 1906, in the home of the Miller family. Richard Miller (William Patrick Riley), a painfully innocent, excessively self-dramatizing, poetry- and love-besotted 17-year-old preparing to go off to Yale, becomes despondent when it appears that his girlfriend, Muriel McComber (June Schreiner), has broken up with him. He reacts by kicking over the traces, getting drunk for the first time, and consorting with a thoroughly unpleasant prostitute (Pearl Rhein, who doubles nicely as the violinist in several musical sequences), before returning to the happy life his family has prepared for him.
Richard is an intrinsically over-the-top character, and Riley gets every bit of his volatility. There are times when he pushes his character’s extreme moods a little too hard, and Donnelly might profitably have advised him to dial back occasionally. Riley’s quieter moments are among his most effective. Schreiner, Ado Annie in last year’s hit production of Oklahoma! at Arena, is winningly sweet and innocent in her relatively brief role, matching Richard in the realm of rapidly changing teenage emotions. (As she broadens and deepens her craft, I look forward to seeing her play more complex and darker roles.)
The calm center of the Miller household is Richard’s father, Nat. Veteran Washington actor Rick Foucheux once again shows his ability to disappear into a character with seemingly effortless ease. As Richard’s uncle, Sid Davis, Jonathan Lincoln Fried plays mostly for comedy the chaos his alcoholism creates. Given O’Neill’s personal and family struggles with alcohol, and his depiction of them in plays like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, it is fascinating to see O’Neill play drunkenness for laughs here. The most subtle and nuanced performance, my favorite of the evening, belongs to Kimberly Schraf as the 30-something Lily, an old maid by 1906 standards, who has loved Sid since they were teenagers, but will not marry him because of his uncontrolled drinking. Schraf portrays effectively Lily’s warmth and underlying sadness, never letting her become bitter or defeated.
O’Neill’s script nicely contrasts the kinds of love between members of the three central couples: the new, exciting, unstable love of Richard and Muriel; the thwarted but still unshakable connection between Sid and Lily; and the warm, autumnal partnership of Nat and his wife, Essie (Nancy Robinette). The play sets the stories of these three couples against the backdrop of what seems, from the perspective of a hundred years later, the quite horrifying virgin/whore dichotomy through which women were viewed, even by so essentially humanistic a character as Nat. The overall tone is nonetheless one of great sweetness, a vision, dramaturg Aaron Malkin points out, of the happy and secure childhood O’Neill never had.
The physical production demonstrates the virtue of simplicity in stagecraft. There is a high border around the periphery of the stage, suggesting the feeling of period architecture. Actors then bring on various set dressing pieces for the Millers’ dining room, a bar, etc. The austerity of the setting prepares beautifully for a breathtaking visual moment when, for the romantic meeting of Richard and Muriel, light bulbs representing stars descend and an illuminated moon rises. In Arena’s satisfying production of Ah, Wilderness!, we can be sure that this lovers’ moon is not one for the misbegotten.
Photos by Scott Suchman
- Nat Miller: Rick Foucheux
- Essie: Nancy Robinette
- Arthur: Davis Chandler Hasty
- Richard: William Patrick Riley
- Mildred: Talisa Friedman
- Tommy: Thomas Langston/T.J. Langston (Thursday evenings)
- Sid Davis: Jonathan Lincoln Fried
- Lily Miller: Kimberly Schraf
- David McComber: Leo Erickson
- Murial McComber: June Schreiner
- Wint Selby: James Flanagan
- Belle: Pearl Rhein
- Norah: Allison Leigh Corke
- Bartender: James Flanagan
- Salesman: Leo Erickson
- Director: Kyle Donnelly
- Set Designer: Kate Edmunds
- Costume Designer: Nan Cibula-Jenkins
- Lighting Designer: Russell Champa
- Composer, Music Direction, Arrangements: Michael Roth
- Hair & Makeup Designer: Christal Schanes
- Stage Manager: Jenna Henderson
- Assistant Stage Manager: Christi B. Spann
- General/Production Manager: Ian Pool
- Technical Director: Scott Schreck
- Property Master: Chuck Fox
- Master Electrician: Christopher V. Lewton
- Master Sound Technician: Timothy M. Thompson
- Costume Director: Joseph P. Salasovich
- Dramaturg: Aaron Malkin
- Casting Director: Daniel Pruksarnukul
- Associate Production Manager: Marissa Larose
- New York Casting: Tara Rubin Casting
Disclaimer: Arena Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/7779.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.