"Ah, Wilderness!": Teen Angst is Timeless

On the surface of it, Eugene O'Neill's sole comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, which opened last night at CENTERSTAGE in Baltimore, is a slight, humorous look at an America that no longer exists.  But this visually stunning, wonderfully acted production, directed by Melia Bensussen gives theatergoers so much more to chew on, but only if they are willing to engage their minds.  Do that, and the two hours you spend with the Miller family will breeze by like a 4th of July picnic.

Yes, the story is slight - 16 year old Richard Miller is feeling full of himself, rebelling against mom and dad by reading scandalous, inflammatory literature (Oscar Wilde, oh my!), and feeling those first feelings of true love.  After being spurned by his true love on the 4th of July and relentlessly teased by his family, young Richard runs off for a night of drinking and kissing (with a local prostitute, no less).  The resulting hangover (will he be punished or is the hangover lesson enough?) and secret rendezvous with his beloved (does she REALLY love him or is she rebelling against her parents, too?) are the concerns of act two.  And that, pretty much, is it.  Well, on the surface, anyway. 

Yes, this corny-by-today's-standards plot, and detailed depiction of life at the turn of the last century may have the appeal of watching paint dry for some.  For others, it may be a reminder that life was simpler and happier then - those "good old days" when "gosh darn it" was harsh enough to get a kid's face slapped, and when being sent out to play, even when you are a senior in college, is greeted with a "yes, sir" and no questions asked. 

But O'Neill, great playwright, couldn't possibly let that be enough.  No, around the edges of this picture perfect family are some real issues - Richard is served at a bar, even though the bartender knows he's underage, Richard seeks the affections of a prostitute, Uncle Sid has a serious drinking problem, Aunt Lily is doomed to be a spinster, as women could only really be housewives then.  Heck, Dad Miller even loses business because of his son's actions.  All of these plot points are interesting and give the piece some dimension, but all go largely unresolved by the final curtain. 

So just why is Ah, Wilderness! a classic?  Because, even though the time period is long gone, and humorous now on its own, its themes of family, respect and the growing pains of adolescence are universal and oblivious to the passage of time.  And Eugene O'Neill knows how to use the English language to maximum advantage.  I am sure I was not the only male in the room who could instantly understand Richard's need to expand his boundaries, challenge authority and become "his own man."  And I'd be willing to bet that every single person in the entire theatre could relate to the almost bone crushing feeling of despair the first time love hurts.

What makes this production really soar, however, is the coming together of all the theatrical elements in such a quality, seamless way.  Ms. Bensussen's direction is simple and straightforward, and yet so artfully constructed - it parallels the simplicity and artistry of the script.  She creates visual poetry, much like an artist and her canvas.  It is almost as if she has decided that at any moment the characters might be caught on a tintype, so careful and tight is her constant attention to detail.  Her production team is similarly skilled.  James Noone's beautiful set that moves and comes together like a transparent jigsaw puzzle lends a stunning background, but always has the family as the primary focus.  It is, like the play, at once simple and complex.  Dan Kotlowitz's lovely, subtle lighting goes miles in creating mood, time and place, and Clint Ramos' intricately detailed period costumes are each lovely pieces of art themselves - even the men's costumes are interesting (a rarity, trust me).  One element that must be mentioned that so rarely is in reviews of this nature is the superb quality of the dramaturgy - the work of Dina Epshteyn.  Her work comes through in every aspect of this detailed production, from the costumes and set pieces to the mannerisms of the actors to the amazing articles in the program.  Without such attention, this could easily have become a play full of odd choices and compromises of quality.

The large company of actors is uniformly flawless.  It is a shame that some of the actors (Eric L. Burton, Leo Erickson, Tim Getman, Timothy Andres Pabon and Sandra Struthers) only have a few lines in single scenes.  Each of them has made characters that are full and memorable.  As staged, the scene changes are fully choreographed and accompanied by music, either on piano (played with zest by musical director Lawrence J. Cione), or by cast members singing or playing instruments.  These moments, performed by the supporting cast, add significantly to the evening. 

The center of Ah, Wilderness! is the All-American Miller family of Connecticut, assembled in its entirety to celebrate that most All-American of holidays, the Fourth of July.  The adults are Nat and Essie (Tom Bloom and Elizabeth Hess) Miller, "Uncle" Sid Davis (Peter Van Wagner) and "Aunt" Lily Miller (Gloria Biegler).  Each of these fine actors give and take as they embody the hierarchy of family.  Mr. Bloom is particularly fun and interesting as he blusters and yells with righteous indignation one moment, then laughs and remembers his own youth the next moment.  The chemistry between he and Ms. Hess is strong and so genuine, it is shocking that they are not really married.  Ms. Hess plays all of the facets of her character with great finesse - whether she is the in charge lady of the house, the worried mother or the strong willed mother, whichever her children need at any given moment.  Ever the lady, you still would be wise to steer clear if she felt you had wronged her family in any way!

Sid and Lily, it seems were sweethearts, but Lily will not marry a man who isn't in control of his drinking.  Ms. Biegler's performance is deceptively given.  She often by necessity is a wallflower, but when she is forced to show her feelings, it is heartbreaking to feel this woman's loneliness and grief wash over you, as she blames herself and everyone around her for her love's alcoholism.  Mr. Van Wagner's Sid is a kind, funny drunk who really means no harm, and yet lets us know there is something darker underneath that won't somehow allow him to sober up and be with the woman he loves.  What that darkness is isn't revealed, but a lesser actor wouldn't think to give us that subtext.

The youngest Millers are Tommy, Mildred, Arthur and Richard.  Connor Aikin (who rotates in the role with Bradley Bowers) is a delightfully cheeky little guy with a bright smile and quite a future in theatre.  He, like his cast mates, gives a fully developed characterization, never resorting to the overly cute or cloying.  (Too bad they don't have male orphans in Annie…)  Kristen Lewis makes the most of the least developed character, Mildred, who being the lone female and middle child, sort of gets lost in the fray of her older and younger siblings.  Still, Miss Lewis is entirely believable and even endearing as she cajoles her brothers.  Oldest brother Arthur is played well by Michael Zlabinger, whose collegiate, All-American look sells the role.  He plays that fine line between all out man and college boy well, and even is called upon to sing.  It would be interesting to see him in a meatier role.

Kimesia Hartz does a brilliant job in her two roles - in act one as Belle, the prostitute practically demanding to deflower poor young Richard, and in act two as the very object of his affections, Muriel.  The casting of one actress in both roles is interesting in that it really points up the themes of love and sex and station, though I'm pretty sure most of the audience was unaware that this is the work of one actress.  That's how good she is at both roles.  For all of the harshness and severity of Belle, Hartz brings that much sweetness to her Muriel.  She makes it easy to see why Richard might be tempted, but resist Belle, and why he is desperately in love with Muriel.

As the centerpiece to the entire play, Bob Braswell, as Richard Miller, is astonishing.  He lopes around the set, alternately full of himself and self-defeated, mumbling and grumbling his way through life as only an adolescent man can.  He is thoroughly convincing as a 16 year old, and easily shows every man in the room a little bit of themselves at that age.  What makes his performance (and those of his co-stars) so terrific, and ultimately why the whole thing still works, is his earnest approach to the role.  He isn't making a caricature or mocking the gentlemanly ways of yore, he is embracing it and making it come to life.

I think it speaks volumes for the production that most of the audience was entirely engrossed, hanging on every word (and not just because the production does not seem to use mics).  It is a shame though, that the smug, pseudo intellectuals that make up most of CENTERSTAGE's opening night crowd chose last night to betray their own immaturity and provided the evening's one negative.  Yes, today "gay", "queer" and "dick" have different meanings and connotations.  But you'd think an adult crowd of well-to-do's might stifle an laugh when those terms are used in an appropriately different context (these were likely the same first nighters who laughed at the "N-word" at the last production).  I mean, really!  Every single time Richard was called "Dick" the lady seated next to me and the guy behind me laughed out loud.  Ignorance and rude behavior is apparently as timeless as Ah, Wilderness's themes of love and angst.

PHOTOS: By Richard Anderson. MAIN PAGE: Bob Braswell.  TOP to BOTTOM: Bob Braswell and Kristen Lewis; Tom Bloom and Bob Braswell; Bob Braswell and Peter Van Wagner; Bob Braswell and Kimesia Hartz; Bob Braswell.

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From This Author James Howard

James was first bitten by the theatre bug at the tender young age of 11, when, at the last minute, he was called upon to (read more...)