Review: ‘Ah, Wilderness!’ at A.C.T. (****)

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Sid Davis (Dan Hiatt, pictured in orange suit) indulges the Miller family with food gags at the dinner table in Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!" Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
Sid Davis (Dan Hiatt, in orange suit) sits at the dinner table with Richard (Thomas Sagnitta, in suspenders) and the rest of the Miller family in Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Thomas Stagnitta plays eager teen, Richard Miller, who runs the gamut from endearingly high to depressingly low, carrying the day in Eugene O’Neill’s 1931 play, “Ah, Wilderness!” with his ebullient enthusiasm. Although O’Neill wrote the classic comedy during the Great Depression, he sets the scene in a happier time, in 1906. Young Richard is blessed being a part of the careful, crafty, and successful Miller family. With this double perspective, O’Neill gives us comic insight into the American “Boom and Bust” mentality, our schizophrenia that runs from Hoover to Roosevelt, from Clinton to Bush. Why are we all the Millers? Because we believe in nostalgia for the old days, old slang, full of clichés and musical ditties. We laugh at the loving and lovely grind of the hard-working Miller family. We enjoy Richard’s daring a bit of high-minded rebellion. We can laugh at ourselves and our dreams, set in an artificial wilderness. Ah, O’Neill!

All the nostalgia, all the bright innocence, and hopeful dreams in “A large small-town in Connecticut, July 4 and 5, 1906,” come to a slow flowering in Eugene O’Neill’s Depression era classic family comedy—set years earlier in a booming U.S. economy.  Originally called “Nostalgia,” O’Neill wrote the play two years after the Crash of 1929, in the midst of working on the family tragedies that crown his legacy to American drama. Here, in the traditional bright family setting, O’Neill looks back to a happier family and a happier time than his own. He paints a picture of upper middle class life that never was, but we all wish and hope that it could be, just for the moment.

The spare and inventive Geary stage home resounds with the sounds, sights and slang of articulate, educated Americans from the 1900s. A flock of well-dressed and self-satisfied Millers, with their friends and foes, inhabit a proper, immaculate, and self-sufficient big house. Could such a happy and contented family ever exist? The Millers conform to the nostalgic family dream for which all Americans yearn. It’s the Fourth of July, 1906, and even the youngest boy, entranced by fireworks, plays his role with bouncy ease and comic endearment. A wonderful, diverse, and fresh cast brings the dream to life. Young Tommy (a sweet Brandin Francis Osborne) brings us into the family’s life with his charm and mischief. The eldest son, Arthur (a solid, self-assured Michael McIntire) wittily embodies the bravado of a “Yale man” home for the summer. He battles with his teen-aged sister Mildred (a feisty Christina Liang), setting the template for sensitive but sweet competitive siblings in America.

The central character, teen-aged rebel Richard (the charming Thomas Stagnitta) disarms us with his endearing rendition of the typical longings and urges of a literary socialist in 1900. Stagnitta takes us on a hell of a fun ride! Keep your eye on that boy. He lives for his bookish dalliances with Emma Goldman, the great radical who was deported to the USSR. He is fascinated by the works of Oscar Wilde, whom he thinks went to jail as a “bigamist.” He recites “daring” poems from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, from which the title of the play is taken, showing that Richard has read the avant-garde poems and ideas of his time.

He rejects the standard Fourth of July “lying talk about liberty.” He longs for a better place and time, an improved U.S., but the conventional Millers are more worried about his “morality.” His radical reading and “indecent” taste in poetry shock his traditional middle-class family; they are more concerned about appearances and Puritan propriety. The slightest hint of “indecency” reduces the Millers to dithering and despair. It’s old fashioned comedy, subtly self-conscious about its conformity, with a craggy, threatening nostalgia just below the surface. Stagnitta’s adolescent O’Neill carries our hearts away, as he risks a drunken adventure in the company of a “tart,” and escapes by the skin of his teeth.

What a loving and a comforting family: the father Nat (Anthony Fusco), a warm-hearted newspaper editor, seems the paragon of fathers. Nat is loving, and awkward in his shy talk about sex with the naive Richard—both of them shy and endearing. Even in his hard business dealings with a feuding businessman (a powerful Adrian Roberts), Nat Miller keeps his cool. The mother Essie Miller (Rachel Ticotin) plays a courageous, caring, and competent woman, both distracted and possessive, who runs her household like a serious business, and has to control the urges of her wayward males. And she’s got a lot to watch over: Aunt Lily Miller (a winsome Margo Hall) plays the long-suffering spinster for delightful, sweet comedy. She wins us over at each moment, as the long-suffering, “proper,” unmarried sister, who has to “put up” with the antics of “Uncle Sid” (a riotous Dan Hiatt). Hiatt shows us a bumbling, alcohol-prone Sid Davis, the reprobate of the crew, who is constantly falling off the wagon and disappointing virtuous Lily, over many decades. Yet, Lily, a delicate flower, forgives him and accepts him for what he is, while disapproving of his ways. Hall gives us a precise portrait of the restrained and virginal idealized American woman.

The bumptious Wint Selby (a bold Matthew Capbarat) brings us another privileged “Yale-man” full of ardor and plans for a sexual adventure—taking innocent Richard in his wake—to a bar presided over by a classic bruiser of a bartender (Arthur Wise) who embodies all the brawn and bullying of a small town “low life,” trying to make a buck. He serves under-aged Richard and Wint, and quarrels with Belle (Caitlan Taylor), who plays the classic “loose woman” or “tart” of 1900 saloon-life with wit and power. She plays the working girl with empathy and strength. The characters are tried and true, the plot is imaginary New England town life, and the idealism is pretty much intact. Soon Thornton Wilder will take this material to new heights in “Our Town,” and later, Arthur Miller will make it all urban and skeptical in “Death of A Salesman.”

But for one moment, between the tragedies and disillusionment of his early and late periods, between socialism, idealism, literary experiments, and bourgeois critiques, the great O’Neill has a dream, literally and figuratively, of the world that never was, “a large small-town in Connecticut” on July 4, 1906. Contradictory and fantastical at its core—”Ah, Wilderness!” pulls out a golden strand that shines slyly against the fog of Depression in 1931. Nostalgia and reality, golden age and dark age, give us the duality inherent in our “Boom or Bust” economy of emotions. The roaring 20s has passed, the Depression is upon us. Let us look to the Fourth of July fireworks and celebrate. Let us draw the curtains of contentment around us, like the Millers, the first and last of their kind. Come and see the Miller crew—you will never see their like again.

“Ah, Wilderness!” by Eugene O’Neill, American Conservatory Theater, Geary Theater, San Francisco, through November 8, 2015. For further information, click here.

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“Ah Wilderness!” by Eugene O’Neill, produced by A.C.T. Director: Casey Stangl. Scenic Design: Ralph Funicello. Costume: Jessie Amoroso. Lighting: Robert Wierzel. Composition/Sound: Paul James Prendergast. Music Consultant: Daniel Feyer. Dramaturgy: Michael Paller.

Cast:

Tommy Miller: Brandin Francis Osborne. Arthur Miller: Michael Mcintire. Mildred Miller: Christina Liang. Essie Miller: Rachel Ticotin. Lily Miller: Margo Hall. Sid Davis: Dan Hiatt. Nat Miller: Anthony Fusco. Richard Miller: Thomas Stagnitta. David McComber: Adrian Roberts. Norah: Jennifer Reddish. Wint Selby: Matthew Capbarat. Bell: Caitlan Taylor. Bartender: Arthur Wise. Salesman: Matthew Baldiga. Muriel McComber: Rosa Palmieri.

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