BWW Review: The Goodman's Nostalgic AH, WILDERNESS!
So much for the 20th Century being the century of progress.
Based on the Goodman's feel-good and nostalgic production of Eugene O'Neill's 1933 comedy AH, WILDERNESS!, it's questionable how far we really have come.
At the heart of the comedy set on July Fourth, 1906 is 17 year-old Richard Miller (a likable Niall Cunningham). Richard is the 1906 version of the modern surly teen. While modern teens might crank up the hip hop and rap, drink and/or send suggestive selfies, Richard's rebellion is appropriate to the era: he reads "forbidden" works like The Picture of DorIan Gray, quotes socialist dogma and writes letters to his gal that include "suggestive" lines from poems. He hungers for knowledge, yearns for adventure and searches for his own voice.
Richard's over-bearing mom Essie (Ora Jones) wants her newspaper publisher husband Nat (Randall Newsome) to discipline the boy, of course. He ends up reading and enjoying several of the tomes. If this was a script from the modern era, this would be played out as a form of reverse psychology (pretending to enjoy something your kid is doing out of rebellion will immediately make that thing uncool).
Richard's siblings include oldest brother Richard (Travis A. Knight as the Yale student who has deemed himself too adult to hang out with the siblings much), nosy flirt Mildred (Rochelle Therrien) and Tommy (Matthew Abraham) who is still in knee-pants and sent to bed well before everyone else.
One need not squint too much to see modern day counterparts. That is, at least, until Uncle Sid (Larry Bates) arrives soused from an afternoon picnic. Sid is a man with a serious addiction to booze. There is an attempt to play this for laughs (and a 1933 audience no doubt found much comedy in the role), but somewhere between 1981's "Arthur" and 1988's "Arthur 2: On the Rocks," alcoholic characters stopped being the comedy gold they once were (at least for me, anyway). Bates is a terrific actor, but --and I am viewing this from a modern lens here-he overstays his welcome. This is by no means a product of Bates' acting abilities and simple a problem with the script. You find yourself begging for a family intervention.
And you sort of get one. At least, to the extent one could have in 1906. Kate Fry plays Lily Miller, the"old maid" teacher who has resigned herself to such status because she has given Sid the ultimatum that it is the bottle or her. Fry elevates the minor character to nearly heroic sights when she expresses the very modern sentiment that the family just might be enabling Sid's addiction.
Yes, she immediately apologizes (this is, after all, 1906 and women are not permitted really to speak their minds in mixed company), but it is a powerful moment that Fry infuses with equal parts anger, frustrations and sadness.
Todd Rosenthal's set features a Victorian-era beach house that is tilted and slanted a bit. It seems to suggest that either the tranquil and idyllic picture of domestic American life is a façade or threatened by the century of progress that is coming the Miller family's way. In a show that literally begins scenes with the fuzzy haze of nostalgia thanks to a scrim of gauze fabric, it manages to evoke a sense of the subversive.
AH, WILDERNESS! runs through July 23 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets $20-$75. 312.443.3800 or goodmantheare.org.