Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” is one of those plays that exists very much in context. It’s a witty, heartwarming coming-of-age comedy, but it might well be nearly forgotten were it not for another, more famous play by O’Neill, the epic and bleak “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Only seven years separate the writing of these two works (“Wilderness” dates from 1932, “Long Day’s” from 1939-41), but they inhabit entirely different worlds and evoke markedly contrasting sensibilities. Some scholars contend that without “Wilderness,” there could be no “Long Day’s,” yet without the latter, few would care so much about the former.
Therefore, it is truly through a glass darkly that many experience “Wilderness” nowadays. But South Coast Repertory’s new production, which opens the company’s 35th season, doesn’t hammer home larger points. Director Martin Benson prefers to let the work speak for itself. There are no suggestions that the sunny sky above the Miller household may cloud over, nor are there hints of dysfunction in this Norman Rockwell-esque family.
Instead, the comedy is played straight, if you will. Here, in the summer of 1906 in a small Connecticut town, Nat Miller (Raye Birk) and his wife, Essie (Marilyn McIntyre), preside benignly over their brood, the four Miller children, and two in-laws: Lily Miller (Jennifer Griffin), Nat’s spinster sister, and Sid Davis (Richard Doyle), Essie’s tippling bachelor brother.
At the center of the play is Richard Miller (Michael Reisz), a middle child clearly based on the playwright. Richard is at the age when extolling eternal verities, Romantic poetry and a curiously charming fatalism seem natural, if affected, and he is in love with Muriel McComber (Rona Benson). She, however, has broken off with him at the insistence of her closed-minded father (Hal Landon Jr.).
Fed up with the unfairness of it all, the now-glum Richard traipses off to a local dive, where, in his cups, he consorts with a harlot named Belle (Karen Stapleton). But underneath the bluster, Richard is a good kid, so there’s no danger of his going seriously astray. Eventually, after some reprimanding, Richard returns to the bosom of his family, and relations with Muriel are repaired.
What makes any of this even remotely interesting, beyond its being by O’Neill, are the comic truths the playwright mines. Adolescent boys are braggarts, hoping to shock parents and peers with their waywardness. Mothers do egg on fathers to punish children, only to then admonish their spouses for being too tough. And fathers never have a terribly easy time explaining the birds and the bees to sons who already know far more than that. O’Neill knew that these moments are part of the common experience, and he crafted an often funny, occasionally moving, play from them.
For the most part, Benson’s relaxed direction allows the humor to flower. His only serious misstep is insisting that the cast adopt New England accents, causing the players to sound like refugees from a Pepperridge Farm commercial. Mercifully, the strained sounds eventually fall away, and the actors gain equipoise, becoming less eager to please an audience already inclined to like them.
Birk’s Mr. Miller is a paterfamilias full of warmth but flush with authority. George M. Cohan created this role, and Birk makes a fine successor. McIntyre, as Mrs. Miller, is also aptly chosen, nicely blending a flighty quality with maternal concern. Reisz’s Richard is more of a problem. The role is a tough one by any measure, but Reisz acts as though he’s wearing some cumbersome costume; he never seems comfortable. The other children — Joey Valenti’s Tommy, Brenda Kenworthy’s Mildred and Kevin Gregg’s Arthur — fare far better. Griffin plays Aunt Lily as a content old maid, and Doyle’s hale-fellow-well-met Sid gets the evening’s biggest laughs. Muriel is among the theater’s most underwritten roles, so Benson has a thankless task, but Landon was born to play her crotchety father. Stapleton provides flair as Belle, and the ever-welcome Martha McFarland makes Norah, the maid, memorable.
James Youmans’ sets depart in detail from what O’Neill suggested but are faithful to the play’s spirit, with floral-upholstered wicker furniture cluttering the stage and weather-beaten clapboard archways framing the action. Walker Hicklin’s beige and pale blue costumes suggest the period, Chris Parry’s lighting is subtly effective and Michael Roth’s music and sound design help achieve a turn-of-the-century mood.