- Ah, Wildernessdir. by Steve Scott
O'Neill and his wife Carlotta visited his boyhood home of New London, Connecticut, in 1931, despite her protesting "Don't do it, darling … don't even try to go back; keep your ideas, but don't go back." After the "disappointing" short visit (according to the Gelbs), he started notes for a play initially titled "Nostalgia," later calling it a "comedy of recollection." O'Neill wrote Ah, Wilderness!in six weeks while on Sea Island, Georgia, in 1933, and stated his purpose was to "write a play true to the spirit of the American large small-town at the turn of the century," setting the play on Independence Day in 1906. For O'Neill, the play's "quality depended upon atmosphere, sentiment, an exact evocation of the mood of a dead past," because he felt that "the real America found its unique expression in such middle-class families as the Millers." Knowing O'Neill's tragic evocation of this place and time, set six years later in Long Day's Journey Into Night, one can never mistake Ah, Wilderness!as autobiographical; the closest correspondence to the Millers might be traces of the more light-hearted Rippins family, with whom O'Neill once lived in New London as he recovered from tuberculosis.
The Goodman Theatre's 2017 production of Ah, Wilderness!visually provided ample nostalgia and atmosphere, particularly with the turn-of-the-century home interior created by set designer Todd Rosenthal, where most of the play takes place and which is not unlike the seafront houses that could be found in New London, Connecticut. The family's dining-room table, prominently in the center of the set, with wooden benches and a requisite draping lace tablecloth, is back-dropped by a wall of open windows, their sheer drapes pulled back inviting a summer breeze. At the center of the family that gathers around this table, as well as the action of the play, is Richard [End Page 187]Miller (played by Niall Cunningham), the seventeen-year-old would-be poet who confesses at his entrance that he's "off in another world," love-struck for Muriel Macomber (played by Ayssette Muñoz) and obsessed with classic poetry he sees as describing their feelings. Surrounding him are his parents, Nat (played by Randall Newsome), the publisher of the local newspaper, and Essie (Ora Jones), his loving and easily charmed mother; her brother Sid (Larry Bates), the likeable but occasionally drunk uncle of the family; Lily (Kate Fry), Nat's school teacher old-maid sister for whom Sid has pined for years; and the Millers' other children: Arthur (Travis A. Knight), in his first year at Yale; Mildred (Rochelle Therrien), a little younger than Richard and discovering the joys of flirting with multiple boys; and the youngest, Tommy (Matthew Abraham), who primarily cares about setting off firecrackers to celebrate the Fourth. While the Millers model as much well-to-do propriety as their strong-willed children allow, they aren't staid in religiosity or generally care what the neighbors think, portraying a certain freedom in a frame of turn-of-the century manners. Essie does her best to minimize her brother's drunken behavior, but at the same time supports Lily in her setting boundaries with Sid, particularly after he disappoints her one more time. Fry skillfully portrays Lily's sad resolve, on one hand so clearly in love with Sid, and on the other unwilling to live with his unfaithfulness brought on by drink; it's a nuanced and anchored performance that serves the production well.
The cast of this Goodman production achieve a familial tone that allows them to criticize each other within the walls of their home, but become fiercely defensive when challenged by anyone from outside them. This is felt deeply when Nat is confronted by Muriel's father (Ricardo Gutierrez) about what he believes are Richard's inappropriate letters and poetry to his daughter, whom he has forced to write Richard a letter breaking things off. In heartbroken response, Richard...