Friday, June 30, 2017

A Summery Romance: O'Neill's 'Ah, Wilderness!' Winds Up Eliciting More of an "Eh" -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Ah, Wilderness!
by Eugene O'Neill
directed by Steve Scott
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 23

Many is the occasion when we turn to entertainment--and perhaps expressly choose a lighthearted work--to provide an antidote to real-life.

There is enough drama, trauma, struggle, heartache, pain, provocation and tragedy to be found at home, work, on social media and the nightly news that chilling out with a rom-com or sitcom can be quite refreshing, and even restorative in its relative mindlessness.

Which isn't to suggest that something comic and/or fluffy can't also be topical, thought-provoking or truly outstanding.

But while I applaud Goodman Theatre for enabling longtime staff producer Steve Scott to choose a lesser-known--and yes, lighter--Eugene O'Neill play for his last directorial effort before he retires, Ah, Wilderness! is far more genial than genius.

And even though the inference I got--from various marketing materials--about the play being a comedy chronicling a teenage romance, in typical O'Neill fashion Ah, Wilderness! is somewhat long (though at 2-1/2 hours far shorter than A Long Day's Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh) and depicts both a quarrelsome family (albeit with a good dose of love & laughter) and alcoholism.

Muriel McComber (played by Ayssette Munoz), the girl that young Richard Miller (Niall Cunningham, from CBS' Life in Pieces) loves as he and his family enjoy the summer of 1906 in a large seaside home, doesn't even appear onstage until Act 2.

Before that, we get a good bit of bickering between Richard and his parents (Randall Newsome, Ora Jones), watch him visit a house of ill-repute and interact with a kindhearted escort (Amanda Drinkall), and note the wistfulness of Aunt Lily (the always terrific Kate Fry) regarding Uncle Sid--her former love, from the other side of the family (Larry Bates)--whose inability to stay sober is played for both humor and pathos.

So a play written by Eugene O'Neill in 1933, after he had won three Pulitzer Prizes--though prior to his two now most famous works, mentioned above--certainly has a variety of strains to keep one engaged without ever getting too dark or heavy-handed.

And once Muriel--who Richard thinks has cruelly rejected him--finally joins him onstage, the play winds up offering glimpses of both first love and familial love that many may enjoy, nostalgically and acutely.

Variety, as they say, is the spice of life, and not only might a (somewhat) breezy beach comedy be just what life prescribes, Goodman's summer offering is about as different an option as can be from Steppenwolf Theatre's new, in-your-face and overtly topical Pass Over.

Yet while I wouldn't dissuade anyone seeking "a nice night or afternoon of theater," especially when weighed against other shows currently in Chicago--not only Pass Over, but downtown musicals like Hamilton, Aladdin and The King & I and stellar works throughout the city and suburbs--Ah, Wilderness! feels quite dated, inconsequential and, except perhaps for O'Neill obsessives, inessential.

I didn't mind seeing it, enjoyed it more than not and valued furthering my familiarity with one of the holy trinity of legendary American playwrights--Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams being the other two.

Longtime Goodman subscribers, like me, should appreciate something different and airier, and if nothing else, applaud all the great work Steve Scott has done over the past 37 years at the theater.

I do not know Mr. Scott, but have seen a number of works he directed--not just at his home theater, where he also served as Producer and in other capacities over the years--and perceive him not only to be a considerable theatrical talent, but...

...a good man, indeed.

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