Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of Jitney
I only knew the play through it's musical version, Take Me Along, so I was excited to make the acquaintance of the original. I was surprised that I found the first act emotionally thin, but that improved in the second act. In researching the play I learned that director Greg Leaming has cut about 40 minutes, which I think may be the key to my reaction. Great plays by great playwrights are best left intact.
The Asolo Rep production is beautifully acted by a mix of company members, Asolo Conservatory third year students, and visiting actors, several of whom have been with Asolo Rep so regularly, they almost seem like family. As Nat, the head of the Miller family, David Breitbarth is the father we all dream we had. Considering that the part was played by George M. Cohan on Broadway and Will Rogers on tour, he has mighty big dress shoes to fill. Denise Cormier plays wife Essie with equal warmth and motherly concern. Ryan Modjeski as Tommy, Kelsey Petersen as Mildred, Joe Knispel as Arthur, and Tom Harney as Richard are their children. Richard is central to much of the action, and Harney turns in an outstanding performance, a little gawky but still ready to spread his wings and test the winds of romance. Lilianna Solum is his beloved, Muriel.
Also inhabiting the Miller household is Nat's spinster sister Lily, winningly played by Peggy Roeder, always a welcome guest artist. Lily pines for Sid Davis, played by Douglas Jones, a member of the Asolo Rep company. The more I see this gifted actor, the more I marvel at his versatility. Last year he was excellent as Malachi in The Matchmaker, a character much younger than Jones' physical years, and here he brings great warmth to Sid, damaged by a love affair with the bottle. Other conservatory students giving fine supporting performances are Kim Stephenson, Kevin Barber, Chris Alexey Diaz, Mark Comer, and Evans Reynolds-White. This play requires such a large cast that few professional companies could tackle it today. The alliance between Asolo Rep and the Conservatory provides artistic rewards for audiences.
The glory of this production is Greg Leaming's direction. For sure, he gets wonderful performances from all of his actors, but it is the nuanced way in which the actors interact that makes them feels like a real family with stresses and strains yet moments of great love. Steven C. Kemp has designed a beautiful outline of a Victorian home, Tracey Dorman's period costumes are perfect, Anthony Pearson has lit the production brilliantly, and the sound design by Matthew Parker gets the job done splendidly. I always admire the work of two of Asolo's team: Patricia DeLorey as voice and dialect coach (David Breitbarth's New York accent almost disappeared into the warm rural New England pattern) and Michelle Hart with hair/wig and make-up design. The period wigs for the ladies are of Broadway caliber and she got the men to re-style their hair for the period. Transitions from scene to scene are accomplished with barbershop style arrangements of period songs such as "I Don't Care" and "Just a Song at Twilight," credited to Darren Server as music director/arranger.
Asolo Rep's powers that be are right that Ah, Wilderness! is the ideal Eugene O'Neil play to reflect The American Character, and this production brings out much of what was lovely about family life in an earlier time.
Asolo Repertory Theatre presents Ah, Wilderness! through April 10, 2016, at the Mertz Theatre in the FSU Center. 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, Florida. Box Office 941-351-8000. For more information visit www.asolorep.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):
Directed by Greg Leaming