Pros: A glimpse of a more innocent time, and a discerning portrait of teenage folly.
Cons: Sometimes the story feels sappy and the acting stagey.
I’ve recently developed a taste for Eugene O’Neill and so was looking forward to getting acquainted with Ah, Wilderness!, the playwright’s only comedy. This gently satiric play is a nostalgic slice of turn-of-the-century American pie.
This was my first visit to the Eel Brook Pub and I found it a warm and welcoming venue, with a lovely 65-seat studio theatre upstairs. The simple set is warmly lit and is bordered by fresh cut green grass, very evocative of long summer evenings.
The entire play takes place during the 4th and 5th of July 1906. We are introduced to the Millers, a Connecticut family of four so loving and functional that they seem utterly foreign in today’s theatrical canon. Sixteen-year-old Richard (Hal Geller) is a self-righteous, serious young man, who shows off his learning by reciting poetry to his mild-mannered father (Tino Orsini) and scandalized mother (Bronwyn Baud). Initially, he seems like the most enlightened member of his provincial family, but as the play progresses, we see how his talk is all youthful bluster, and that at heart he’s a naïve fool. In other words, he’s your typical intellectual teenager.
The play centres on Richard’s romance with the lovely and innocent Muriel (Stacy Sobieski). After receiving a Dear John letter, broken-hearted Richard embarks on a night of drinking and loose women. A poignant counterpoint to this storyline this is an unrealized romance between spinster Aunt Lilly (Debbie Terry) and Uncle Sid (Harry Reeder), an old drunk whom Lilly can’t help but love although she knows he’s incapable of changing.
Ah, Wilderness! presents some serious challenges for today’s performers. It’s a overly sentimental story and the play professes a morality that seems quaint to modern audiences. It’s hard to appreciate the suggested depravity of Richard’s night of underage drinking. Some of O’Neill’s characters are caricatures that the performers never quite manage to transcend. Another problem is the turn-of-the-century language, which the cast struggled with. Some of the American accents were a bit ropey, and line deliveries often sounded unnatural. At times, this made it hard to shake the feeling that I was watching a school play.
Still, there are some fine moments. For me, the standout performer was Amy Burke, playing both the Millers’ frazzled Irish maid, and the snarky prostitute Richard meets on his night on the town. The play started to come alive during Burke’s sizzling performance. Generally speaking, I felt that, after a weak start, the play improved as it went on, so perhaps this production will find its stride.
Okay Eugene, perhaps it’s not your best work. Admittedly, I didn’t fall into this play’s imaginative world in the way I hoped I would. Instead I enjoyed Ah, Wilderness! as a time capsule of America’s lost past.
Director: Brandon Force
Author: Eugene O’Neill
Producer: Rowena Russell
Booking Link: http://londontheatreworkshop.co.uk/ah-wilderness/
Booking Until: 19th April 2014