BWW Reviews: Actors Co-Op Revives a Refreshing AH, WILDERNESS!

Ah, Wilderness!/by Eugene O'Neill/directed by Thom Babbes/Actors Co-op, Crossley Theatre, Hollywood/through October 13

Turn of the 20th century New England, when family differences were tolerated, every single member had a permanent home in spite of his flaws... and there was love. It may seem like an idealistic fairy tale, but such is one of the early non-dysfunctional family plays of Eugene O'Neill Ah, Wilderness!, where the Millers represent the kind of family O'Neill wished he had been born into. Now on the stage of the Crossley Theatre at Actors Co-op, you have one more week to catch this picture-perfect production through October 13.

Billed as a comedy, Ah, Wilderness! makes audiences laugh at human weakness and about the imperfections of coming.of.age. Human weakness, in this case, is alcoholism, which, along with drug addiction crippled the O'Neill family as seen in Long Day's Journey into Night. In ...Wilderness there's a semblance of it in Uncle Sid (Townsend Coleman), mother Essie Miller's brother, who cannot hold down a decent job or succeed in marrying father Nat Miller's sister Lily (Carrie Madsen), the love of his life. Both Sid and Lily board with Nat (Phil Crowley) and Essie (Jodi Carlisle) who have their own problems in raising son Richard (Nicholas Podany), daughter Mildred (Chloe Babbes), young son Tommy (Tate Downing) and older son Arthur (Patrick Lawrie), a Yalie who offers the least worries.

It's Richard, at 16, who is a handful, reading and quoting Oscar Wilde and Strindberg, and wooing Muriel McComber (Melody Hollis) with these poetic but too openly suggestive protestations of love and romance. Muriel's father (Dimitri Christy), who has taken an ad in the Evening Globe of which Nat is owner, has threatened to pull his advertising unless Nat puts a stop to Richard's fretful behavior. He even forces Muriel to write a Dear John letter to Richard, which breaks Dick's heart and causes him to go out on a vengeful rebellious rage. The play takes place on the fourth of July, 1906, when an automobile ride and backyard fireworks were considered thrilling, so a 16 year-old who reads Ibsen and gets 'soused' must be punished, at least from Nat's paternal point of view. Essie would just as soon rant but pamper and spoil.

It is refreshing in today's day and age to see these problems played out, long before drugs, rampant unprotected sex and internet pornography took hold of our youth. It's a much earlier version of classic TV's Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver where parents were baffled by their children's behavior, yet gleamed at the obedience that followed a little common sense advice. It's the goodness, not the bad side that ultimately prevails, quite the contrary today, so O'Neill's portrait provokes more than a smile/chuckle or two. Precious, unforgettable moments include the men's glee in reading the saucy notes Richard wrote to Muriel; fine men, of course, yet showing true male spunk when the women aren't around to criticize and chastise them, "Men are weak"

The entire cast is first-rate under Thom Babbes' smooth paced and loving direction. The Act I dinner scene where Uncle Sid is sloshed and tries to poo poo it all and where Essie must amusingly own up to lying to Nat about the kind of fish she's been serving him is hilarious and superbly acted and directed down to the tiniest detail. Everyone of the major players have their shining moments like Carlisle's pronounced yet endearing absent-mindedness as Essie and and Crowley's uncanny Jimmy Stewart-like delivery as Nat. Standout attention duly goes to Podany who makes Richard's innocence and instantaneous spurts of rebelliousness a total joy to watch. Another standout is Coleman as Sid. He has great comic timing and his foolhardy drunkenness is played to perfection. Tim Conway could not play it any better. Hollis as lovely Muriel shines brightly in one sweet and tender romantic scene (pictured above), in which she forgives Richard and helps to forge a meaningful bond between them. In smaller roles Catherine Urbanek excels as naughty lady Belle, and there is strong support from Maurie Speed as Irish cook Norah, Chris Speed, Michael Onofri, and Danny Araujo. Great scenic design from Sets To Go: Mark Henderson & Tim Farmer and wonderfully spot.on period costumes from Shon LeBlanc.

Go and see this marvelous, rarely produced revival of one of Eugene O'Neill's fine, insightful plays, now through October 13 only!

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