Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Ah, Wilderness!
Goodman Theatre
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's review of Moby Dick


Randall Newsome, Bri Sudia, Niall Cunningham,
Larry Bates, Rochelle Therrien, Matthew Abraham,
Ora Jones, and Kate Fry

Photo by Liz Lauren
Much is made of the fact that this is Eugene O'Neill's only comedy, and remarkable for its place in the canon of a writer known for works with themes not only serious, but bleak. Still, it has its connections to plays like Long Day's Journey into Night or The Iceman Cometh in its treatment of alcoholism and illicit sex and society's rejection of those who succumb to such things. In Ah, Wilderness!, some of the men are tempted and some give in to these temptations of the flesh, but here those tempted stop before going over the cliff, and those who give in are apparently redeemed or at least forgiven. The difference in the fates of this comedy's characters versus those of Iceman or Long Days Journey is the support of family and community.

The comedy, set on a July 4th in the idyllic year of 1906 in a small Connecticut city, concerns the Miller family. Nat Miller is editor of the local newspaper and father of the clan. Befitting a good journalist, he gathers facts before making decisions, and considers others' points of view. He is open to new ideas and more concerned about others than himself. His most visible fault is that he's a bit conflict-averse and reluctant to take on the role of family disciplinarian. His wife Essie is a good soul, but has clearly internalized the moral standards of the time—disapproving of alcohol abuse, premarital sex or smoking—and is concerned about appearances and community disapproval—and wary of sensual literature like "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam", the current book on the reading list of 16-year-old son Richard. But family is all to her, and she can tolerate the alcohol abuse of her beloved brother Sid Davis, a charming and funny ne'er do well who is visiting the family for a time. He's had an on again, off again relationship with Nat's sister Lily, who's also visiting. The two have never married, due largely to Sid's drinking.

Son Richard is an intellectual and idealistic who wishes to share his values and discoveries with his girlfriend Mildred McComber. His reading of "Khayyam" to her prompts fear in Mildred's father Dave that Richard is attempting to seduce his daughter. Convincing Richard that Mildred has lost interest in Richard, Dave temporarily sabotages the relationship. That's enough to make Richard susceptible to an invitation to join the friend of his older brother Art for a "double date" with two prostitutes. On the date, Richard succumbs to smoking and alcohol in the company of one of the girls (who, along with the setting of a seedy bar in a sleazy hotel, seems right out of The Iceman Cometh), but stops before accepting her offer to get a room and have sex. It may be his good upbringing and generally strong relationship with his family that keep his moral compass working, but it's clear that O'Neill is showing the kind of crossroads young people faced in an unforgiving society. One road leads to a room at Harry Hope's "Iceman" Hotel, the other to a respectable family life.

Director Steve Scott's production is a worthy addition to the Goodman's ongoing commitment to O'Neill—one that includes definitive productions of Iceman and Long Days Journey as well as their O'Neill Festival that included Desire Under the Elms. On the realistic but not hyper-so set by Todd Rosenthal, it's a straightforward interpretation of O'Neill's text, and like the Goodman's production of The Matchmaker last year, employs diverse casting, with African-American actors playing Essie, Sid and Art. The audience thus gets the chance to see the always wonderful Ora Jones as a warm, strong and funny Essie. The talented young actor Travis A. Knight is suitably preppy as the Yalie brother Arthur, and Larry Bates is a charming, if a bit contemporary, Uncle Sid.

Niall Cunningham of CBS-TV's "Life in Pieces" is a delight as Richard—confident to the point of obstinacy in his political and moral beliefs, but with a nearly hidden vulnerability arising from his knowledge that he's just beginning to move out into unfamiliar territory as an adult. As father Nat, Randall Newsome is the kind of even-tempered dad (and for that matter newspaper editor) you'd want in your life. There's terrific support as well from Kate Fry as Lily, Ayssette Munoz as Muriel, Rochelle Therrien as the bratty younger sister Mildred, Amanda Drinkall as the young hooker Belle, Will Allan as the friend Wint Selby, and Ricardo Gutierrez as crotchety Dave McComber.

Richard and the Millers had a strange world ahead of them indeed, what with the first world war just eight years away, and the social upheaval of the 1920s, the Great Depression and another world war soon to follow. We can wonder how Richard fared through all that, but take comfort in knowing he had the advantage of a head start through a supportive family.

Ah, Wilderness! runs through July 23, 2017, at the Goodman Theatre, 150 N. Dearborn, Chicago. For tickets and information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org or call 312-443-3800.


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