Chicago Theatre Review
A Coming-of-Age Comedy Classic
Ah, Wilderness – Goodman Theatre
Theatergoers and scholars familiar with the dozens of works by Eugene O’Neill know that his plays are basically autobiographic and, due to a very dismal life, often tragic and sad. O’Neill’s dramas are known for their realism. They are some of the first American plays to feature dialogue containing speech patterns and a vocabulary that reflected the American vernacular. His plays often portray characters who live on the outskirts of society. Their struggle to achieve their dreams often result in a downward spiral toward hopelessness and depression.
Of course, this all mirrored O’Neill’s own life, which was riddled with disease, depression, alcoholism and drug addiction. In addition, the Nobel laureate was also very much influenced by the naturalism found in the plays of several European writers, such as Strindberg, Ibsen and Chekhov. O’Neill’s plays, several of which were awarded the Pulitzer Prize, were based upon scenarios from real life and were stories that seldom had happy endings.
Perhaps the one exception amidst O’Neill’s vast canon of tragic dramas, such as “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “The Hairy Ape,” “The Iceman Cometh” and “Moon for the Misbegotten,” is this happy, optimistic comedy. Through this sweetly nostalgic play, O’Neill put pen to paper, imagining what he wished his childhood might have been. This warm, sentimental comic drama is unique for the playwright because in it O’Neill paints a portrait of a happy family at the turn of the century.
Set on July 4, 1906, probably in O’Neill’s hometown of New London, Connecticut, the story mainly focuses on 16-year-old Richard, the middle son of the Miller family. Clearly modeled after O’Neill’s image of himself as a budding poet, this coming-of-age comedy classic portrays a typically rebellious teenager who’s influenced by the controversial ideas in the books that he reads. Richard’s pure, idealistic love for Muriel McComber is complicated when her easily irritated father, David, a major advertiser in Nat Miller’s newspaper, decides to forbid the romance.
A secondary storyline, that more closely mirrors O’Neill’s own personal experiences with alcoholism, follows Uncle Sid Davis, a former writer for Nat Miller’s newspaper, and the on-again, off-again gentleman companion of Richard’s Aunt Lily. Sid’s failed attempt to remain sober is a continual disappointment to Lily and the play ends with their relationship still in question. The comedy presents a realistic, perhaps idealistic view of a typical, middle class family at the turn of the century. In addition to Richard, Uncle Sid and Aunt Lily, we’re treated to a close look at the loving relationship between Dick’s parents, Nat and Essie Miller, as well as his older brother, Arthur, his younger sister Mildred and younger brother Tommy.
Niall Cunningham, one of the stars of television’s “Life in Pieces,” makes his Goodman debut as Richard Miller. Tall, lanky and crowned with a head of curly red hair, Cunningham is the picture of pure, innocent adolescence. He’s feisty, yet lovable. Cunningham is the kind of young man who could melt your heart, whether eloquently quoting poetry or speaking directly from the heart. As Nat Miller, Randall Newsome is terrific. He’s the quintessence of fatherhood, whether defending his son’s right to some unorthodox ideas, meting out punishment for staying out late or trying to work up the nerve to deliver “the talk” to his teenage son. Newsome’s chemistry with his entire stage family is honest and heartwarming, especially with the real head of the household, his wife Essie. As played by Chicago favorite, the multitalented Ora Jones, Essie Miller is an unrivaled standout in this production. She rules with a kid glove while warming the room with her ardent smile. She demonstrates the kind of mother/son relationship with Richard that Eugene O’Neill probably longed for; and her restrained, yet heartfelt love for her husband is genuine and something the playwright could only imagine.
Both Kate Fry, as Lily Miller, and Larry Bates, as Sid Davis create a solid, believably loving couple, who are a study in how opposites attract. Fry is patient yet unflinching in both her affection and demand for sobriety; Bates is fun-loving and repeatedly contrite for the errors of his ways. Knowing O’Neill’s family history, there’s no doubt as to where this story is headed, and a certain melancholy hangs over the storyline.
Excellent performances are turned in by the superb actors in supporting roles, leaving a memorably strong impression through often just a single appearance. Ayssette Munoz is excellent as Richard’s beloved Muriel, as is Ricardo Gutierrez in his single scene as her father, the blustery David McComber. Will Allan makes an hilarious man-about-town college man, as Wint Selby. Amanda Drinkall, with her sweet, Judy Holliday-like voice, is a playful, pleasure-seeking Belle, the pretty young prostitute who tempts Richard at an oceanside roadhouse. In what could’ve been a simple walk-on role, the gifted Bri Sudia, always wonderful in any part she plays, is delightfully funny as Norah, the Miller’s bumbling Irish cook. She plays a young woman who clearly loves and respects her employers and makes housekeeping for this family look like a daily, joyous adventure.
Eugene O’Neill’s lone, lighthearted play features, for him, an uncharacteristic happy ending. It’s really less of an actual comedy and more of an elegy for a forgotten, idyllic way of life. This luscious production, especially as guided by the gentle, respectful and sensitive direction of Steve Scott, is a tender retrospective portrait about growing up at the turn of the century. It’s a look at a simpler time, a much longed-for past of small town family values and adolescent angst. Featuring a gorgeous, detailed oceanside scenic design by Todd Rosenthal, lit with fireworks and seashore brilliance by Aaron Spivey and cloaked in colorful, elegantly tailored, period-perfect costumes by Amy Clark, this wonderful summer entertainment longingly recalls a bygone era when life’s biggest challenge involved winning the heart of the girl you loved.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 26-July 23 by the Goodman Theatre in the Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 312-443-4800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/AhWilderness.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.