Written by Eugene O’Neill in three weeks during the depression, “Ah Wilderness!” is a delightful reverie about the family he never had. In fact, he said the story came to him in a dream and in ANW’s new production, the audience is swept back to 1906 to spend Independence Day with the Miller family in a small town in Connecticut. Where O’Neill’s later plays are dark and brutally honest, this one gives a much lighter, sunny version of the time and is his only comedy.
We first meet the Millers gathered around the piano on a beautiful 4th of July day singing a sweet little ditty afterwhich all are making their plans for the day and evening. The family is headed up by Nat Miller, a loving father and local newspaper man, and his dutiful wife, Essie. The action centers around their 17 year old son, Richard, an idealistic writer who sees himself as a rebel and who is desperately in love with Muriel. Richard’s siblings include older brother, Arthur, home from his first year at Yale, 15 year old sister, Mildred and 11 year old Tommy. Also living in the Miller home are Aunt Lily, Nat’s spinster schoolteacher sister and Essie’s unmarried brother Sid.
Not only is the play an entertaining family drama, transporting you to this idyllic setting in the past, it is also really funny. Director Steven Robman keeps things moving at a brisk pace, engaging us with a flurry of comings and goings through the audience. The cast is anchored by strong company members Deborah Strang, who brings an authentic motherly kindness and consternation to Essie, and Alan Blumenfeld in the tailor made for him role of Sid. Blumenfeld’s Uncle Sid is jaunty & charming, providing much of the play’s funniest moments, but also heartbreakingly genuine. It isn’t hard to understand why Lily loves him and Kitty Swink’s performance is full of longing and loss.
Matt Gall’s Richard is full of earnest desire as he rhapsodizes about great poetry and writers and rails against society with an ache for independence that seems to be bursting out of him. Ian Littleworth as Yalie brother Arthur is pitch perfect as he tries assuming the mantle of a worldly, college man. The luminous Emily Goss is a perfect match for Richard, as she is at turns hopelessly in love, indignant and scared. It is a testament to both of their performances that their seaside scene together is so satisfying.
Steadying the Miller home is Nicholas Hormann as Nat, the kind of strong, good-hearted father who navigates the treacherous waters of all the various personalities in the home, from housemaid Norah, the charming Kelsey Carthew, to his wife and daughter, his in-laws and his sons. Hormann is a perfect combination of strength and softness that make his Nat an everyman father we all know and love. His precise awkwardness during his birds and the bees talk with Richard is comedic gold.
For all its lightness and humor, the play doesn’t feel dishonest. Robman is able to bring all of these characters in and out of their situations and back to a place called home, where they are allowed to be who they are and to be vulnerable with one another. The poignant moments feel earned.
The cast is rounded out splendidly by Katie Hume, Samuel Genghis Christian, Marcelo Tubert, Conor Sheehan, Emily Kosloski and Matthew Henerson. I must make special mention of the music direction by Jonathan Tessero, which had us singing “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” and other lovely songs of the time which added to the overall nostalgia of the evening.
Ah Wilderness! Plays through May 20, 2017, in repertory with King Lear and Man of La Mancha at A Noise Within-3352 E. Foothill Blvd. Pasadena. Tickets & Info: (626) 356-3100 www.anoisewithin.org Ticket prices start at $25. Student rush with ID, one hour before performance $20.