It’s very cold, I have a cold, and so much of our politics has doubled down on the coldness of death as a solution to difficult situations we should be rising to the challenge of with radical generosity. For these and other reasons, the opening weekend of Ah, Wilderness! — a Eugene O’Neill comedy presented by the Blackfriars Repertory Theatre and Storm Theatre Company — last Friday and Saturday at The Sheen Center in lower Manhattan couldn’t have been more welcome.
I told Peter Dobbins, the director, as I walked out: I needed that.
I laughed and I cried – all the things you hope to do when setting out to a theater. It’s about love and family and dreams, both fulfilled and filled with heartache, as it is with life. It’s an antidote for the vortex of the newscycle, polar or political. It’s healthy and delightful.
Terry Teachout saw the production, too, last weekend, and in his review of it in the Wall Street Journal, captures some of its gift:
The best thing about “Ah, Wilderness!” is the way in which it mixes sweetness with sorrow. It stands to reason that O’Neill, who subtitled the play “A Comedy of Recollection in Three Acts,” would have been inclined to mix these two strong flavors. “Ah, Wilderness!” is the theatrical equivalent of a reverse image of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” the tragedy in which he dwelled at length on the horrific shortcomings of his real-life family. In “Ah, Wilderness!” he chose instead to evoke the imagined shades of the Millers, the family he would have preferred, headed by Nat (Mr. Trammell), the tolerant, supportive father, and Essie (Lynn Laurence), the kindly mother. In addition, he portrayed himself when young as Richard (Peter Calvin Atkinson), a lovesick innocent who reads George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde on the sly but remains a virgin. Indeed, poor Richard is so idealistic that he actually contrives in the second act to visit a whorehouse without effect, coming home drunk but unspotted.
That’s the sweet part. The sorrow comes in the form of Sid (Ted McGuinness), Essie’s brother, who has kept Lily (Ms. Petrofes, who is touchingly melancholy), Nat’s sister and Sid’s longtime girlfriend, on the string for 16 years. It’s not that Sid isn’t willing to tie the knot, but Lily knows better: He’s a ne’er-do-well alcoholic who can’t hold down a job, and she won’t marry him unless he goes on the wagon. Their relationship casts a shadow on the other Millers, reminding us of the dark-brown threads of disappointment that run through even the happiest of small-town families.
“Ah, Wilderness!” profits from unhurried presentation, especially in a light-textured production like this one. It helps that Mr. Trammell is so good: His Nat is the father we all wish we’d had, decent and patient, and he makes us believe that such men exist, or at least did in 1906, the year when “Ah, Wilderness!” takes place.
O’Neill’s only mature full-length comedy is overdue for a handsome Broadway revival. In its absence, though, this production makes a convincing case for its old-fashioned virtues. Even if—perhaps especially if—your own family was more like the desperately unhappy Tyrones of “Long Day’s Journey” than the mostly contented Millers, I suspect you’ll be charmed by “Ah, Wilderness!” Like “Our Town,” it takes an essentially hopeful view of American family life, and successfully persuades all but the most cynical viewers that it’s more than merely pretty to think so.
Read the whole review here.
Ticket information is here.
There is a pure goodness about so much of this production of the kind that we need to immerse ourselves in more. It’s refreshing and renewing. And on the part of the audience it doesn’t take a lot of work. It doesn’t add stress. It doesn’t make you angry. I’ll sure take that over things we typically subject ourselves to throughout our days.
We need art. Great art – like Elizabeth Lev talked about here. Comedic art like this. We need to support and encourage art. Drink it in where you can. Do yourself a favor and see this run of Ah, Wilderness!, if you can.