A warm and accessible production of one of the most commercially viable of Eugene O’Neill’s familial sagas, Daniel Sullivan’s vibrantly staged and thoroughly entertaining Lincoln Center revival of “Ah, Wilderness!” has both the creative integrity and the contemporary spark necessary to attract audiences beyond O’Neill devotees.
Among a stellar ensemble cast, Sam Trammell makes the playwright’s malcontent alter-ego smolder with latent sexuality — this could be a star-making turn for a hot young actor.
And although one could argue that the role of the genial but slightly confused newspaper proprietor, Nat Miller, is essentially a 1906 incarnation of the coach that star player Craig T. Nelson played in a long-running sitcom, no one could accuse the craggily sculptured Nelson of superficiality. A fascinating blend of curling eyebrows, quizzical demeanor and gentle earnestness, Nelson deftly captures the soul of a decent man with a tenuous grip on both modernity and patriarchy.
Sullivan’s greatest directorial achievement here is the creation of a believable extended family that is not only archetypally credible but also intensely empathetic to a contemporary audience. An artist with a strong sense of humor, Sullivan has also managed to point up the inherent comedy of the piece (the gags in the script are punched out with uncommon zeal) without sacrificing authenticity or falling into any of the hackneyed pitfalls of character-based poetic realism.
From a 1998 perspective, O’Neill certainly set the traps. In a work widely regarded as his attempt to sanitize (or diffuse the ongoing effects of) the memory of drug-ridden monsters that populated his own troubled youth, the seminal American scribe created a befuddled but well-meaning middle-class crowd of familiar types in a play he described as a “nostalgic comedy.”
Most of the action here revolves around Richard (Trammel, who’s delightfully intense), a high-schooler who upsets the community balance by sending his local girlfriend, Mildred (Jenna Lamia), racy love letters culled from his newfound interest in the scribblings of Swinburne and Oscar Wilde. When Mildred is forced by her narrow-minded father (James Murtaugh) to cast off Richard, her temporary rejection sends him on a second-act bender in the bad side of town, where he encounters a hooker (delightfully played by Jenn Thompson), but ultimately remains a virgin.
Richard’s parents spend a great deal of time worrying about how to react to their lusty and impassioned off-spring. His mother, Essie (Debra Monk), talks about punishment but is easily melted. Father Nat delivers awkward sermons on the facts of life. The boy’s young sister and two brothers — one a kid, the other a stiff Yalie — laugh at the budding sensualist.
And O’Neill even provides an inhouse alcoholic role model for Richard in the guise of the aging Sid Davis (Leo Burmester), the mother’s brother, whose general debauchery has prevented his marriage to the gentle Lily (Leslie Lyles), the father’s sister, for the past 16 years.
The cast and director give these icons uncommon specificity. Even minor characters like Thompson’s Belle and the salesman who ejects Richard from the bar are drawn with considerable depth and humanity. And if Monk sometimes seems too urbane as Essie, there are few other off-notes in a production that never confuses honest respect for a classic text with stultifying reverence.
Burmester and Lyles turn in excellent character work, while the assorted Miller offspring are uniformly well performed. From the clever opening tableau through a funny dinner scene in which the kids have their backs to the audience, Sullivan creates the kind of entertaining stage pictures that keep his work eminently watchable.
Although the design style is not entirely consistent (some scenes are more fully realized than others), Thomas Lynch outdoes himself in the final-act setting, fluidly evoking the romantic strip of beach where the young lovers meet to resolve their problems. Aided here by richly textured lighting from Peter Kaczorowski, Sullivan is a master of the slick transition, and the show moves beautifully from one scene to another, seemingly taking the audience on a physical journey mirroring the voyage of the characters.
Staged by the Roundabout Theatre in 1983 to mark the play’s 50th birthday, “Ah, Wilderness!” has proved a consistently revivable and pliable attraction over the years. There was a 1959 musical version, and Mickey Rooney and Agnes Moorehead appeared in a 1948 film incarnation, “Summer Holiday.”
Aside from eliminating the box office poison of a title that seems singularly inappropriate, that celluloid moniker nicely captured the languid and easygoing charms of O’Neill’s least literary but surely most playable show.
In Sullivan’s capable hands, this pleasing comedy appears fresh, honest and surprisingly applicable to the postmodern age.