Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, Ah, Wilderness! directed by the Hartford Stage Artistic Director, Melia Bensussen, and running through November 7th, is a delightful well-made play that deserves to be staged more often. The catch is that there are fifteen characters, and that’s tough for any theatre at any time, and most especially for theatres that have been dark for two years. Kudos, then, to Bensussen, for not only presenting this production, but for creating, with Scenic Designer James Noone, a stunning set that uses Hartford Stage’s cavernous space in one of the most evocative ways I’ve seen in my fourteen years of attendance.
Ah, Wilderness! is a family story, but the Millers are the reverse of the heart-breaking households we are accustomed to seeing from this playwright. In their “Welcome Letter,” Bensussen and Managing Director Cynthia Rider quote O’Neill: “I am far from being a pessimist … On the contrary, in spite of my scars, I am tickled to death at life!”
He also more than hints that Ah, Wilderness! depicts the family that he wishes he had had: a doting and robust mother; a kindly, loyal father; an older brother attending Yale; a sweet spinster aunt; and the man she loves but refuses to marry due to his drinking. (This is the only nod to the alcoholism that wrecked the playwright’s actual clan.)
O’Neill depicts the main character, a young man on his way to college, with great affection as both a starry-eyed romantic, determined to marry his first girlfriend; and a self-proclaimed revolutionary, reading such dangerous authors as George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Omar Khayyam, from whose poetry the play takes its title.
Bensussen captures the warmth of the Millers, and one of the loveliest elements of her production is the addition of music from the period, with piano played by Yan Li, songs performed by members of the cast between scene changes, and Musical Arrangements by Li, Michael Bodeen, and Rob Milburn. The perfect costumes are designed by Olivera Gajic; the transporting wigs, hair, and make-up are by J. Jared Janis; and the splendid lighting is by Wen-Ling Liao.
Not only is this home a place of glowing wish-fulfillment, but almost every cast member radiates O’Neill’s vision of the household surrounding young Richard Miller (Jaevon Williams) on the Fourth of July. Michael Boatman makes a bear-like, sometimes befuddled, but always big-hearted Nat Miller, the father; Antoinette LaVecchia is a fond and strong-minded Essie Miller, the mother; and Antonio Jose Jeffries is fine as big brother Arthur, while Miles Lowe makes a dear and dimpled little brother, Tommy. Katerina McCrimmon, as sister Mildred, needs a bit more vocal coaching, as her speaking voice tends towards the sharp, but her singing is lovely.
Four actors stand out, even from this gifted group. Natascia Diaz, as Aunt Lily, and McCaleb Burnett as her life-long love, Sid, bring heartache into this otherwise almost too genial picture. In love since they were young, Sid’s drinking has destroyed their plans to marry, and though they still love each other, Lily is too wise to give into her feelings. Nowhere else in this play do we see such poignance, and Diaz and Burnett are captivating.
In a relatively small but key role, Tanner Jones plays Wint Selby, a Yale friend of Arthur’s and a hell-raiser. Jones seems absolutely of this time and place, and it’s not surprising that he is able to tempt Richard into an establishment of ill-repute when he finds that Arthur is not home to complete his double date.
The fourth especially fine performance comes from Brittany Annika Liu, who is cleverly double-cast. First, we see her as Belle, a prostitute who tries her best to get Richard into an upstairs room at a bar but is ultimately satisfied with a five-dollar bill. Then, at the end of the play, we finally meet Muriel, Richard’s sweetheart, and if we look hard enough, we might recognize Liu. The transformation is remarkable, and Liu’s Muriel is charming; we understand why Richard is besotted.
Unfortunately, there are a few missteps in the production that pull us out of our willing suspension of disbelief. One happens in the famous boat scene, where Scenic Designer Noone has situated the boat in the middle of the stage, with no attempt to create the illusion of water. And some might find that a play so firmly rooted in 1906 is not ideal for Bensussen’s color-blind casting.
But the most problematic casting has nothing to do with the director’s color-blind choice. Unfortunately, Jaevon Williams, as Richard, is too stiff and modern for a role that hinges on evoking our fond indulgence.
However, missteps notwithstanding, I was grateful for the opportunity to see this wonderful play, and I look forward to once again joining my fellow theatergoers at Hartford Stage for what promises to be a fascinating season.
Ah, Wilderness! continues at Hartford Stage through November 7. For further information visit: www.hartfordstage.org or call the theatre box office: 860.527.5151. Patrons are required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination at the door.