Ah, Wilderness! – Review by Tom Holehan

The only comedy ever written by Eugene O’Neill and a true American classic, “Ah, Wilderness” is a celebratory choice for the re-opening production at Hartford Stage. On opening night the play proves to be far from a definitive production of O’Neill’s warm coming-of-age story, but the wildly supportive crowd in attendance would probably beg to differ.

“Ah, Wilderness!” takes place in 1906 over the July 4th weekend where the Miller family are enjoying time at their Connecticut summer home. The main plot deals with 16-year-old Richard (Jaevon Williams) who is bound for Yale and currently very serious about Muriel McComber (Brittany Anikka Liu). The other love connection is between spinster Aunt Lily (Natascia Diaz) and her-on-and-off again suitor, Sid Davis (McCaleb Burnett). The play deals with themes of family loyalty and the many facets of love be it adolescent, marital or unrequited. Simply put, this is a solid, well-written and endlessly charming family comedy, the kind they just don’t seem to write any more.

At Hartford Stage the large cast also includes Michael Boatman and Antoinette LaVecchia as Richard’s parents, Katerina McCrimmon as his younger sister and Antonio Jose Jeffries as his accomplished older brother. New Artistic Director Melia Bensussen keeps the cast busy without making them a true ensemble. Everyone is doing their thing – sometimes entertainingly so – but rarely do they seem like actual family members and connect. The level of acting is also all over the map. In the crucial role of Richard, Williams would be fine in a high school production, but in Hartford he barely registers. The classic boat scene between Richard and Muriel here generates no sparks and the poignancy and humor of the scene eventually sinks. Boatman and LeVecchia have their individual moments as the concerned parents, but Burnett drains all the humor out of Sid’s drunk scene at the family dinner table. Diaz, however, seems like one of the few real people on stage and McCrimmon injects some real fun into the role of Richard’s bossy sister.

The impressive two-story set by James Noone ultimately becomes a hindrance for Bensussen. It doesn’t easily adapt for the other areas required by the play most evident in that boat scene where the actors appear to be walking on water. The director has added live music and period songs for the scene changes which is a nice touch and Olivera Gajic’s turn of the century costuming is lovely. Wen-Ling Liao’s lighting projects warmth not always found in the characterizations. All told, this is a somewhat lackluster re-opening for Hartford Stage.

“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.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.