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Ah, Wilderness! in Cincinnati

Reviewed by Stephen A. Black


AH, WILDERNESS!, directed by Joseph P. Tilford.  Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati, Ohio, September 3-October 4, 2002.

On September 12th I enjoyed a terrific production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! at the Marx Theater in Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park. It was a good day to see this play by a great American skeptic which celebrates life in America as many have lived it. The many did not include O’Neill himself. Decades later O’Neill told Hamilton Basso that the play represented the sort of youth he wished he had had. The play came to O’Neill “fully formed” (as he wrote in his diary on September 1st, 1932) and, writing everyday, he finished it by the end of the month. It is the lightest of his mature plays. Any adequate production evokes constant, sympathetic chuckles throughout and hilarious laughter in the dinner scene from the interplay among the four adults, Nat and Essie Miller, Nat’s spinster sister Lily, and Essie’s drunken brother Sid, who proposes often to Lily (who always rejects him, tearfully).

It is not a perfect family, but it is a family that “works.” That is, if the task of a family is to prepare its young for independence and parenthood, this is a successful family. Somehow O’Neill had learned in a very detailed way how the adults in a family might create a sense of safety in which the young could enjoy the prolonged youth that he himself had not known (and could not provide for his own children). In tone and style the play is more simply “realistic” than most of O’Neill’s mature plays, that is if a work set twenty-five years in the past, portraying a privileged American family at its best, can be called realistic. In any case, characters speak as educated Americans spoke in 1906, wear the fashions of the day, read such current authors as Wilde, Swinburne, Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam, and aspire to Yale. It is “realistic” in the sense that the playwright assumes that reality for the characters on stage is essentially similar to reality outside the theater. It is one of the few O’Neill plays in which the main characters bear only superficial resemblance to O’Neill himself or the members of his parental family.

The realism of the play is given a splendid, non-realistic set designed by Joseph P. Tilford. A huge American flag, suspended at the rear, rises out of sight as the play begins, and reminds the audience of at least two things: that the play is set on July 4th, Independence Day, and that we in the audience (like everyone else) have just passed the first anniversary of September 11th, 2001. Before the play has begun, we contemplate the flag and perhaps think of ways America has changed since 1906 or since 1932. The playing area is a large low platform, set well back on the stage, with Greek-ish columns rising at rear. The platform defines the space of the Miller sitting-room, the dining-room, the bar that Richard visits in Act 3, and the strip of beach where he meets Muriel in Act 4. Entrances and exits take place from backstage and through two tunnels opening up near the front edge of the stage to the right and left. In virtually all its details the production, directed by Edward Stern, was faithful to the text and the spirit of the play. David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes seemed to me authentic to the period. Dialects, coached by Bruce E. Coyle, were a little inconsistent, probably because some actors are quicker at learning them, but the inconsistency was seldom a distraction.

In other productions, the romantic idealism of the seventeen-year-old Richard Miller and his love affair with Muriel seems to be the main action of the play. In this production, the love affair is merely an episode in the life of the Millers, and places the family itself, especially its adults, at the center of the play. I think that Mr. Stern’s production catches O’Neill’s intent. This is a family in which the young are safe to be carrying on in their various ways – Tommy with his firecrackers, Mildred and Tommy poking or tripping each other, the older son and his friend trying on the roles of Yale sophisicates and men of the world. Richard is almost seventeen, just graduated from high school, and innocent in a way that is hard to imagine now; his innocence reminds some of us how drastically reduced the period of youthful innocence has become in the last fifty years or so of middle-class America’s history.

The actors playing the four adults of the family work as smoothly together as though they had indeed known each other all their lives. One notices that they think quickly, listen to each other, that they seem to like and trust each other, that they seem secure in their roles and in the play, and in O’Neill’s language which seems to be their own. How does one describe a scene as funny as dinner with the Millers in Act 2. Don’t try. The text tells us that the men are a little the worse for wear, having just come from the town’s celebration of the the fourth. Joneal Joplin as Nat feels his liquor just enough to tell again his story of boyhood valor, saving a rival’s life during a swimming contest, and Robert Elliott (Sid) is tipsy enough to call Nat’s self-indulgence and embarrass his successful brother-in-law. Essie (Lynn Milgrim) is annoyed enough at Nat being late for dinner and also being slightly tipsy to let him know her old secret about the blue fish. It’s another embarrassment, but Nat finally laughs at himself, and Sid seizes the moment to tease the prim Lily for being a drunk and to make his daily proposal to her of marriage. Lily (Carol Schultz) helplessly captivated by his charm and wit, laughs and later cries. After Sid has been sent to bed, the women reveal a real problem, that Sid has lost his job reporting for a Waterbury paper. Nat solves the problem at once; he will hire Sid for his own paper.

The smaller roles are played very well in ways that seem consistent with life a century ago. Katharine Scholl is raucously intimidating as Belle in the bar scene. Drew Fracher (the bartender) and Jerry Vogel (the salesman) are good in stock roles, as is Kathy McCafferty as Norah. Richard Russell Ramos is perfect as Mr. McComber. Keri Setaro as Mildred and Mike Heffron as Tommy reminded me of myself and my cousins a lifetime ago. The Yale men, Eric Altheid (Wint) and Eric Sheffer Stevens (Arthur Miller), are as stuffy as one might wish.

It is a sign of time and change that the most difficult parts to play in 2002 would have been the most conventional in 1932, the lovers, Richard and Muriel. Perhaps nothing has changed as much, during the last half-century of changes, as the experience and pattern of middle-class adolescence. Daniel Talbott (Richard) and Winslow Corbett (Muriel), who are probably in their twenties, seem lost or perhaps embarrassed in trying to represent kids in their late-teens who are as naďve, romantic and idealistic as O’Neill’s lovers. Someone suggested that their interpretations of the parts seemed to be comments about their characters rather than representations of them, and I agree. Never mind, the play still works splendidly in this production, and shows what a wonderful writer of comedy O’Neill could be when he tried. Edward Stern, his staff, his actors and the Playhouse in the Park deserve congratulations for fine work.

© Copyright 2002 Stephen A. Black.  Stephen Black is Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia and author of Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy.


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