Talks!" proclaimed ads for the 1930 film of Eugene
O'Neill's "Anna Christie," the first talkie from
the silent-screen siren. A similar line might be used to
describe "Ah, Wilderness," the lone comedy from
the King of Pain: "O'Neill Smiles!"
Hugs and laughter
are practically the last things you expect from O'Neill,
known for such towering dramas (often with autobiographical
roots) as "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "A Moon for
the Misbegotten." But "Ah, Wilderness!," performed with
easy warmth in the modest American Century Theater production,
is an exception. The small-town family is happy on this
Fourth of July, 1906. Things turn out well.
mean it's altogether easy. Richard Miller, a young man on
the verge of college, nearly has his life ruined when his
girlfriend's dad intercepts love letters bursting with hot-blooded
modern poetry. Seems the shamefaced gal is renouncing him,
and Richard's despair is . . . well, it's awful! And full
of exclamations! He'll show everyone -- he'll go to the
local tavern and get good and drunk!
The fuel that revs the engine of self-pity and waste in
many an O'Neill play, even this one. Richard's charismatic
Uncle Sid is a drunkard par excellence, as we learn during
a long comic scene at the dinner table.
inebriation is nicely underplayed by John Collins, has the
family in stitches with routines that seem designed to mask
his weakness. In short: He'd gladly marry lonely Lilly Miller
(Tina Renay Fulp), and she'd marry him, only she disapproves
of his chronic boozing.
what naive Richard will learn at the local dive is a mystery,
especially when he starts swigging gin and showing off for
an opportunistic tart (Carolyn Myers, coming across more
like a college ingenue than a wily working girl). Heartbreak
and ruination might lie ahead, or maybe -- thanks to a full
moon, true love and a home life that's irrepressibly affectionate
-- Richard will come to his senses.
production in Gunston Arts Center's smallish Theater II
has a homespun quality that suits the play fine. As Richard's
father, Kim-Scott Miller beams with joy, almost overdoing
the kindly patience as he lavishes reassuring pats and pecks
on the family. Rebecca Herron's reserve as Richard's mother
seems right, and in the toughest role, Evan Crump dives
headfirst into Richard's wild mood swings. Crump even unveils
surprisingly effective comic instincts during Richard's
confused moonlit rendezvous with his girl (Emily Webbe,
pouting for all she's worth).
Century's artistic director, Jack Marshall, notes in the
program, "Ah, Wilderness!" has had more takers
than usual lately (Baltimore's Center Stage laid a fancy,
airy design and live piano on the play last spring). And
it's not a snappy comedy; it's more sentimental than laugh-out-loud
funny, and O'Neill's big-hearted empathy and nostalgia run
the risk -- not always avoided here -- of feeling saccharine.
may value this transparent, upbeat earnestness all the more
because of its source. This is still very much O'Neill country,
and it's hard not to watch anxiously these characters blithely
skirt the darkness.
Wilderness!, by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Bob Bartlett.
Set design, Andrew Barry; lights, Andrew F. Griffin; costumer,
Rip Claassen; sound design, Matt Otto. With Kevin O'Reilly,
Tori Miller, Harry Hagerty, Christopher Tully, Kari Ginsburg,
Joe Baker, Robert Heinley and Michael Feldsher. About 2
1/2 hours. Through Oct. 6 at the Gunston Arts Center, 2700
S. Lang St., Arlington. Call 703-553-8782 or visit http://www.americancentury.org.