By Kay Kipling
The idea of Eugene O’Neill—so known for his dark dramas involving barflies, prostitutes and others down on their luck—writing a comedy feels a foreign one. And as director Greg Leaming remarks in his notes for Asolo Rep’s production of Ah, Wilderness!, even in this touching and warm O’Neill work, there are undertones more somber.
That’s partly because the Miller family of the piece, set very deliberately over the Fourth of July weekend in 1906, is in some ways like the O’Neill family if only things had been different—if alcoholism, drug addiction and emotional distance had not cast their shadows, as they do in another fictionalized O’Neill version of the clan, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Those dark tones are lightened here, as young Richard Miller (excellently portrayed by Tom Harney) and his parents, siblings and others prepare for the holiday. It’s a lovely summertime interlude, surrounded by period songs, gently lit, suggesting a time—even if it never really existed—when life was much simpler.
Not so simple for Richard, perhaps, who’s been reading a lot of poetry and spinning a lot of “radical” ideas while pining for his young love, Muriel (Lilianna Solum), whose father warns him off in no uncertain terms. Fortunately, though, Richard has an understanding group of adults around him: a concerned mother (Denise Cormier), tolerant father (David Breitbarth), and an aunt (Peggy Roeder) who knows all too well the sorrows of love unfulfilled, thanks to her feelings for the well-meaning but alcoholic Sid (Doug Jones).
You know they’ll be there to help him when an encounter with a brazen hussy named Belle (Lisa Egan Woods) and a bartender (Chris Alexey Diaz) turns nasty. But from that disaster, Richard rebounds to better things: a moonlit evening spent at the beach with Muriel, in a scene bound to evoke some sentimental sighs.
Leaming has trimmed the original script somewhat to bring the production in at two hours, although only the most devoted O’Neill fans are likely to notice. It feels just the right length, with just the right atmosphere, and the cast brings to it a potent flavor of nostalgic reflection, with a hint of harsher realities to come.
Along with Harney, Breitbarth, Roeder, Cormier and Jones especially delineate their characters with graceful nuance. And the production is aided by Steven C. Kemp’s simple set design of the framework of a house (with a wide, changing and colorful natural background) and by Tracy Dorman’s costumes, both of which place us in a specific time and location while also feeling familiar and appealing.
Ah, Wilderness! continues through April 10 at Asolo Rep; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.