Above photo: Sid Davis (Dan Hiatt, pictured in orange suit) indulges the Miller family with food gags at the dinner table in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, performing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater through Sunday, November 8.
‘Eugene O’Neill’ and ‘hilarious’ don’t usually belong in the same sentence. America’s great tragedian did a lot of re-hashing his troubled family life. The Millers in Ah, Wilderness!, while far from problem-free, are a refreshingly normal, happy, loving family. While Richard Miller’s coming-of-age story is set over a hundred years ago, the basic pattern—heartbreak, rebellion, and lessons learned—is easily relatable. This is especially true because the American Conservatory Theater presents it with great tenderness and humor.
A plot so different from O’Neill’s own experiences came to him in a dream. Director Casey Stangl and scenic designer Ralph Funicello let this story inspire the set—a collection of floating windows and semi-transparent walls that suggest a home without quite becoming one. Fashionable turn-of-the-century furniture glides smoothly along to transform the front part of the stage from the Millers’ living room to the dining room and back. Robert Wierzel’s lighting subtly sets the mood as the action switches between the house, the bar, and the beach.
The great strength of this production is that every single actor excels and plays off of the rest of the cast.
Thomas Stagnitta as Richard Miller stands at the heart of the play, and he’s initially difficult to connect to. His characterization is absurdly melodramatic—full of grandiose misquotations from Wilde and Ibsen. Can a seventeen-year-old really lack self-awareness so badly? He feels and dramatizes his own pain over the loss of his sweetheart Muriel so much that we don’t need to sympathize. As the play continues, though, he becomes more relatable. His moments of genuine emotion as he talks to Rosa Palmeri’s spunky Muriel are more especially touching in contrast to his usual affected manner.
The humor of Ah, Wilderness! largely stems from awkwardness—things left unsaid that ought to have been said, or things said that ought to have been left unsaid. As Nat Miller, Anthony Fusco is the master of comedic restraint. His failed attempt to give Richard ‘the talk’ is both the most uncomfortable and the funniest scene in the show. Rachel Ticotin plays his wife Essie with impeccable comedic timing and laugh-provoking sudden reversals. Sid Davis, played by Dan Hiatt, takes the prize for saying too much with his drunken dining-room-table ramblings that send the whole family into hysterics. Margo Hall shows deep feeling and quiet dignity as his long-suffering beloved Lily.
I couldn’t possibly give credit to everyone who deserves it; the great strength of this production is that every single actor excels and plays off of the rest of the cast. The Millers feel like a family, with an easy rapport that’s equal parts teasing, love, and exasperation. A few elements of the show seem charmingly dated: Jessie Amoroso’s gorgeous period costumes, O’Neill’s liberal use of slang, the family’s criticism of ‘bad books’ and reluctance to discuss sexuality, and the exciting newness of automobiles and electric lighting. But the plot and themes ring true, and it’s hard to imagine them being better presented.
Photos: Kevin Berne.