Eugene O’Neill comedy at Goodman is lighthearted and profound

 

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Perfect for a month that includes the Fourth of July, Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness,” is about hope, wistfulness, freedom and coming of age in an idyllic family setting at the turn of the last century.

The extended Miller family in Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!" at Goodman Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren
The extended Miller family in Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” at Goodman Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren

So don’t, when you see the play is by O’Neill who penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning, semi-autobiographical play, “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” think dark family drama.

They both take place on a Connecticut seashore but “Ah, Wilderness” is a lighthearted comedy that likely presents the type of family O’Neill wished he had.

You will meet the Miller family during the Fourth of July. Nat, the father is presented intelligently and with empathy by Randall Newsome as a fine newspaper editor and family man who pretty much goes along with whatever wife Essie (Ora Jones) and second son Richard (Niall Cunningham) want.

It’s easy to see that Essie, nicely played by Ora Jones, softly wears the “pants” in the family. Richard, brilliantly interpreted by Niall Cunningham as an intellectual high school student who favors flowery, somewhat purple prose and poetry, adores neighboring sweetheart Muriel McComber (Ayssette Monoz).

Thus the title is taken from a translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a favorite poem of Richard. Many people will recognize at least part of the stanza. It goes “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness – Oh, Wildernesss were Paradise enow!

The rest of the family consists of eldest son Arthur (Travis A. Knight) who attends Yale where Richard is expected to go, daughter Mildred, played with spunk by Rochelle Therrien, and  youngest son Tommy, a cute turn by Matthew Abraham as a boy still in knee pants.

Their extended family include relatives Lily Miller, Nat’s sister who is wistfully interpreted by Kate Fry as the former fiancée of Sid Davis, Essie’s brother. They still love each other but he can’t change because he loves drink, gambling and “ladies of the night” too much. Davis is done with humor but without remorse by the talented Larry Bates.

Rounding out the picture are Norah, a funnily clumsy maid played with wonderfully comedic moves by Bri Sudia and Belle, the “fast” woman delightfully handled by Amanda Drinkall whom Richard is paired with at a local dive.

Muriel’s dad, David McComber, is portrayed as the dislikeable but understandably protective father by Ricardo Gutierrez. Also in the show are the dive’s bartender (Joe Dempsey) and The Salesman at the bar (Bret Tuomi).

The production also works now in 2017 even though its time period is 1906 because of the fine directing of Steve Scott (remember the insightful and comedic turns of his Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike). Scott is retiring this summer after several years as a Goodman Theatre producer and director.

Of course there is also Todd Rosenthal’s charming set and Amy Clark’s fine costumes that are wonderfully evocative of the period.

“Ah, Wilderness! is a sweet but not saccharine play of a family that deals philosophically with a teenager going through romantic and philosophical challenges. It even includes a heart-to-heart father-son discussion that almost touches on growing up hormones.

“Ah, Wilderness! is at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago through July 23, 2017. For tickets and other information call (312) 443-3800 or visit Goodman.

 

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