There are so many drunk and depressed characters in the world according to Eugene O’Neill that you sometimes wonder whether there’s room in it for sober and happy people. Not everybody is happy in “Ah, Wilderness!” but at least their unhappiness is played for laughs in O’Neill’s only comedy, in which the dysfunctional family dynamics of the writer’s later “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” are subjected to lighter treatment. Center Stage brings out the play’s adroit balance between comedy and pathos in a handsomely designed production that also persuasively brings the circa 1906 setting to nostalgic life.
Although unevenly matched performances in crucial roles mar the overall success of this evocation of the society of O’Neill’s youth, there’s nothing to complain about in the work of Bob Braswell as the semi-autobiographical Richard Miller, a 17-year-old sensitive type poised between angst-ridden adolescence and angst-ridden adulthood. Braswell’s slender build and nervous speech patterns are turned to fine advantage as Richard pontificates about socialism and progressive literature. When the romantically frustrated young man seeks comfort from a floozy in a gin mill, the funny scene could be titled “Long Day’s Journey Into Saturday Night Live.”
Also satisfying is Tom Bloom’s subtle performance as Richard’s crusty but caring father, Nat. However, Elizabeth Hess goes over the top as Richard’s admittedly melodramatic mother, Essie, causing problems with the overall tone. Fortunately, the large supporting cast capably puts across the other family members and visitors.
Director Melia Bensussen makes a clever casting move by having the same actress, Kimesia Hartz, portray both Richard’s sweet but elusive girlfriend, Muriel McComber, and trashy gin mill tart, Belle. No wonder the poetry-drunk Richard has so much woman trouble.
The play has a story as thin as Richard and generally tends to be mildly amusing rather than hilarious, but it does provide quality time with the Miller family in a small Connecticut town as it celebrates the July 4 holiday. This is where the Center Stage production sparkles — and not just with its fireworks.
James Noone’s set relies on the skeletal framework of a Victorian house’s doors and windows, making a nifty conceptual frame for a memory play about O’Neill’s youth.
The somewhat abstracted nostalgic mood is accentuated by Dan Kotlowitz’s gentle lighting, Clint Ramos’ stylishly subdued off-white costumes and music director Lawrence J. Cione’s energetic playing of ragtime-era tunes on an upright piano in front of the stage. Cione is occasionally joined by other cast members on banjo, harmonica and ukulele. How often can you say you left a Eugene O’Neill play with genial period songs running through your head and a smile on your face?