Eugene O’Neill is widely revered as a great American playwright. He won the Nobel Prize (the only American dramatist to do so) and three Pultizers. His plays are standard in college courses, and last March the Mondavi Center screened a noteworthy two-hour documentary on his life and work.
However, if you actually want to see one of O’Neill’s plays on stage, that’s a different matter. The man’s plays are rarely staged hereabouts; City Theatre’s Ah, Wilderness! is the only O’Neill play we’ve had the opportunity to review locally in the past 10 years.
Credit director Luther Hanson for ending the drought. And this play is a timely choice: It’s set in 1906, making this year a convenient anniversary.
Ah, Wilderness! is technically a “comedy,” the only one O’Neill wrote. But it deals with the same issues as his gloomier, signature dramas—drinking to excess and the brief, empty affairs between tipsy adults that damage deeper relationships.
It’s also one of those rare plays that presents caring middle-aged parents living with a brainy, not-yet-fully-mature son who’s hitting a few of life’s bumps as he comes of age.
The story revolves around a small-town newspaperman’s teenage (underage) son who upends the family’s Fourth of July celebration by skipping the fireworks and going to a sleazy dive, where he meets easy women and orders too many sloe gin fizzes.
If this sounds like an uncommon topic for a comedy, it is. But then, O’Neill’s not your ordinary writer. What separates Ah, Wilderness! from his more characteristic, brooding dramas is that this story is cushioned by several apologies, a bit of forgiveness, and manifestations of love. So it ends with the implication that maybe things are going to turn out all right.
This production has several shining moments between Lew Rooker (as the father and publisher), Laura Kaya (as wife and worried mom) and precocious son Richard (young Peter Harris). There are also fine scenes between Stephen Mason as Uncle Sid (a charming man, with a weakness for the drink) and Maria Ryken as Lily (who loves Sid but won’t marry him). When these players are together, the show thrives; at other times the show is less successful. But this production’s well worth seeing for the scenes that click, and the rare opportunity to see an O’Neill play without having to leave town.