BWW Review: AH, WILDERNESS! Sparks At Open Stage
Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is his exorcism of his childhood demons, a tragic and disturbing play about his massively, painfully dysfunctional family. AH, WILDERNESS!, an earlier work of O'Neill's, is the opposite. Called by O'Neill a folk play, it is more a fantasy, the comparatively rapturous - every adolescence has its angst - story that O'Neill may have wished he had lived. Considered a comedy, it's amusing but slight, which is as funny as O'Neill's writing gets. It has its very funny moments peeking out of a Fourth of July of some angst at the turn of the Twentieth Century.
On the Fourth of July, 1906, in a Connecticut town, things happen. Nat and Essie Miller (Brian Schreffler and Emily Gray) have to worry not only what their children are up to, but about the low-key war between teetotaler aunt Lily (Lisa Haywood) and uncle Sid Davis (Dan Burke), a hard-drinking newspaperman, who live with the family. Meanwhile, there is family scandal, since our hero, teenaged Richard Miller (Michael Hardenberg) has been rejected by his girlfriend and accused of reading Evil Books. Essie is faint at Richard's highly inappropriate reading matter. Anarchist politics! Swinburne! Oscar Wilde! (In 1906, there's little doubt that Wilde was the most scandalous of the lot.) Richard's determined to free the workers, recite THE BALLAD OF READING GAOL, and, most damnably, sneak snatches of THE RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM into letters and conversation.
There is tragedy. Richard's girlfriend appears to have deserted him. Sid gets drunk at a picnic, and won't be taking Lily to the fireworks. A friend of Richard's brother has asked him to keep a couple of young ladies company at a place down by the lake, which turns out to be a dive bar that's harboring prostitutes visiting from New Haven. What's a family to do in these rapidly changing moral climates of the modern era, when Richard is suddenly coming of age?
In the case of the Millers, whose story is on stage at Open Stage of Harrisburg, directed by Donald Alsedek, the answer is, muddle through like always, because it's bound to work out in the end.
AH, WILDERNESS! is a collection of moments throughout the day, both Richard's and everyone else's - Lily's temperance ideals clashing with Sid's drinks at a stag picnic, in those days before Prohibition and the social mingling of the sexes. The neighboring funeral director throwing a fit to Nat at the poetry Richard's quoted in letters to his daughter. A lobster feast at home that's the epitome of all family holiday dinners on stage, and the most hilarious of a succession of sillinesses throughout the day. Sid walking off in drunken stupor, in one of the funniest bits Dan Burke has had. Richard missing the point of women of ill repute, and downing sloe gin in an effort to be sophisticated at a bar. Richard's own drunken interlude, tended to by the highly experienced Sid. Reunions of teen and adult lovers. And, of course, Essie Miller's discovery that almost everyone in the family has read the very books Richard has that she's taken exception to.
In the Open Stage production, by far the greatest moment is the family lobster dinner, which conjures up every awkward family holiday meal in the world. But it's followed closely by Nat's having "the talk" with Richard, to be sure he understands, er, you know, and by Nat's oh-so-brutal disciplinary tactics with his difficult adolescent son. Schreffler and Hardenberg have a truly delicious father-son dynamic that recalls every parent who can't quite come down that hard on the rambunctious kid. And it may be Richard's story, but Schreffler's Nat Carries the production as the hardworking guy who really does love his family. Burke, however, manages to steal the show in Sid's less sober moments.
It's a solid cast, not just among the leads but in the lesser parts, that brings believability to O'Neill's no-good, horrible, very bad for Richard Fourth of July. They're aided by Dave Olmstead's outstanding set and by Alsedek's guidance as director. It's sad to see Alsedek retire, but this production sends him out on a high. He's brought the perfect summer show to lead up to our own Fourth of July, and it's hard to say fairer than that as his farewell to the local stage. He's given O'Neill's memory play the right air of dreaminess (O'Neill claimed to have awoken from a dream with the play in his head), the right touch of nostalgia, and a gentle reminder that families have had the same problems forever, not just with the advent of easily accessible transportation and instant information.
Through the 25th at Open Stage of Harrisburg, and a great end to the season and start to the summer. Visit openstagehbg.com for tickets and information.