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Ah, Wilderness!

  • Theater, Comedy
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
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Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

The Goodman takes O’Neill’s aberrantly warm family comedy down from the shelf for an affable revival.

For Chicago theatergoers, it might be a little jarring to see Eugene O’Neill in a good mood. We’re used to somber renderings of O’Neill’s grand tragedies, frequently featuring Brian Dennehy. But Ah, Wilderness!, the great playwright’s sole comedy, hasn’t had a large-scale production here in recent memory, though it’s had non-Equity stagings at Eclipse Theatre in 2012 and Griffin Theatre in 2001.

But those viewers conversant with Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh will recognize O’Neill’s familiar themes in this slice-of-life, even if they’re painted in a sunnier palette. It’s the Fourth of July in 1906 Connecticut, and Richard Miller, the middle son of a large and mostly happy clan, is chafing against the restraints of adolescence in the tradition of 16-year-olds forever. (For self-seriousness and perceived burdens, Angela Chase has nothing on pouty, poetry-quoting poor Richard.)

Pining for his forbidden sweetheart Muriel McComber, whose father disapproves of the “obscene” snippets of Swinburne the boy’s been sending her, Richard sets out to show ’em all with a defiantly grown-up night out—in a saloon scene that plays out here like a strange interlude from the Goodman’s 2012 Iceman—but he escapes with his virtue largely intact.

Steve Scott’s engaging production mostly keeps things jolly, though it can’t solve the fact that O’Neill leaves half of his large cast of characters with too little to do. Randall Arney and Ora Jones are genially endearing as Richard’s parents, a sort of tender photonegative of Long Day’s Journey’s Tyrones, and Kate Fry is affecting as Richard’s spinster aunt; Will Allan and Amanda Drinkall make hay of their characters’ respective single scenes. But the play rests on Richard’s shoulders, and the thoughtful Niall Cunningham carries it handily, crafting a vivid comic portrait of politely rebellious youth.

Goodman Theatre. By Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Steve Scott. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.

Written by
Kris Vire

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