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Ah, Wilderness!: Eugene O'Neill's play about his best friends as a kid

By Bence Olveczky
Staff Reporter

Ah, Wilderness!

At the Huntington Theatre until June 14

264 Huntington Avenue, Boston

Tickets: 266-0800

$12-45, students $5 off

Despite all the praise and awards he received during his career, the Pulitzer and Nobel prize winning American playwright Eugene O'Neill was not a content man. Nor were the fictional characters he created for the stage especially enviable. In his plays, O'Neill portrayed with excruciating honesty and deep psychological insight the cynicism and hypocrisy in a society driven by insecurity and fear. Most of his masterpieces, like Long Day's Journey Into Night and Strange Interlude, are as bleak and discomforting as Edward Hopper's disturbing paintings of an estranged and disjointed America.

But in Ah, Wilderness!, penned in a single month in 1932, the Harvard educated playwright takes a well deserved vacation from this cold and unrelenting world, and gives us a surprisingly warm portrayal of middle-class family life in "large small-town America." The comedy, now playing at the Huntington Theatre, was an experiment in wishful thinking for O'Neill. Subtitled "A nostalgic comedy of the Ancient Days when Youth was Young, and Right was Right, and life was a wicked opportunity," O'Neill described his play as "a sort of wishing out loud. It is the way I would have liked my childhood to have been."

Set on the fourth of July in 1906, the play focuses on a young poet's rebellion against the conformity of middle-class life and the apparent self deception that fosters it.17-year old Richard Miller's weapon is the intellectual heritage he has discovered through reading, and his favorite ammunition is the quotes of Ibsen, Swinburne, Wilde, and their likes. He yearns to explore life in all its different manifestations, feeling uncomfortable in his parents carefree and idyllic home. Intent on discovering the deep mysteries of life on his own with a little help from his dead and not-so-dead poet predecessors, the young Richard sets out on an odyssey into the land of forbidden pleasures. His sudden venture is triggered by a letter of rejection from his innocent girlfriend, and a surprise invitation to the infamous Pleasant Beach Hotel from a college friend (from Yale of all places!). We follow many of Richard's "firsts." He gets his first kiss from a prostitute in the same sleazy joint where he experiences his first drunken stupor and his first fight.

But realizing that the indulgences romanticized by his literary heroes are a far cry from what they turn out to be, Richard returns to the loving family nest like the prodigal son, and a happy ending looms when he learns that his girlfriend still loves him.

The character Richard Miller was clearly modeled on O'Neill's image of himself as an aspiring poet, but unlike O'Neill, Richard's rebellion is quelled and his craving for romantic endeavors extinguished by a loving family who cares and wishes him the best. Huntington Theatre's production succeeds in creating the atmosphere of a turn-of-the century middle-class home, and we can all easily identify with the nave young protagonist and his yearning for a world where idealism and intellectual curiosity are the norm.

The acting, while mostly very strong, is sometimes a little exaggerated and mannered. In the title role, James Waterstone tries too hard to look seventeen, taking on a whiny voice and a strange bent posture to convince us of his youth. Careena Melia, who plays Richard's girlfriend, is made into a stereotypical no-brain cheerleader. While a little irritating in the beginning, these affectations serve to suggest, in a very subtle and refined way, that the characters are acting out the idyll in order to deceive themselves. But we appreciate O'Neill's rare generosity in letting the self-deception go unpunished, and we rejoice in the happy and joyful conclusion.

Ah, Wilderness! became one of O'Neill's greatest successes, and Huntington Theatre's production gives us a good indication why. Director Kyle Donnelly has managed to create a world we all want to be part of. For many, it will be a nostalgic trip back to their childhood, while others will share O'Neill own yearning for a childhood they never had.

The visual framework for the play superbly designed by Scott Bradley suggests a turn-of-the century middle-class home, but the effect is achieved with a minimum number of props. Chairs, doors, and curtains are effortlessly reordered between the scenes with a clever usage of Huntington's revolving stage. The production flows naturally with a high pace, never letting the attention of the theater-goer sway. This inspiring three hour theatrical adventure rewards its audience with plenty of smiles, laughter, and light entertainment - and coming from O'Neill, that is a rare treat.