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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in the Preview section of U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 15, 1998. All rights
Review: `Ah, Wilderness’
Some wise guy of a critic once remarked that any comedy
that runs more than two hours becomes a tragedy. He has surely forgotten
the joy one experiences as Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, "Ah,
Wilderness," nears the three-hour mark. Of course, there have
been many comedies from Shakespeare to Simon that have tested the
limits of an audience’s laugh tolerance. Perhaps "Ah, Wilderness"
succeeds more beautifully than many other long comedies because it
unfolds like a Valentine rather than erupting like a volcano.
The luminous beauty of "Ah, Wilderness" has never been so
warmly and sparingly revealed as it is under the direction of Daniel
Sullivan. A stunning impressionistic deep purple, green, and black-streaked
horizon, and a minimalist arrangement of a few chairs and tables (the
brilliant conception of set designer Thomas Lynch, and lighting designer
Peter Kaczorowski) are all that is needed to help set off the emotional
and real fireworks, and most of all, the plain nostalgic fun.
Despite the play’s familiarity, Sullivan’s uncluttered staging breathes
new life into the halcyon-like halls of O’Neill’s fantasy. "Ah
Wilderness," unlike the playwright’s heartbreaking autobiographical
purge in "Long Day’s Journey Into Night" (a production of
which is at the Irish Repertory Theater), is basically a sentimental
fantasy about the family and childhood O’Neill ached for but never
had. Yet, his lovable nostalgic turn-of-the-century portrait of the
Millers is as much a lyrical distortion of truth, as that of the obsessively
self-destructive Tyrones. Sullivan’s minimized apple-pie vision is
as declamatory and clear as the 4th of July fireworks that punctuate
the activities of the wholesome Connecticut household.
Moving right along from her over gregarious performance
as the slut with the heart of you-know-what in "Steel Pier,"
Debra Monk leaps into the undiminished radiance of Essie, the delightfully
contradictory Miller matriarch. If Monk can never be accused of being
stingy with theatrical vitality, she injects a dippy sort of spunk
into Essie, a role that can be merely nagging. Monk’s interpretation
stands in sharp relief from the very different Essie, played by mother-earth
Colleen Dewhurst on Broadway in 1988.
But none of these stellar actors detract from our involvement with
the young love-intoxicated Richard, as played to play-dominating perfection
by an exceptionally winning Sam Trammell. The longish beach scene
between Richard and the cautiously adventurous Muriel moved along
with a bright effervescence thanks to Tracy Middendorf, whose beguiling
impact made up for her late-in-the-play appearance.
Jenn Thompson gave us plenty more than just tang in her role as Belle,
the bar tart who tries to seduce Richard. If Dylan Chalfy were not
so excellent an ensemble member, although he gets the spotlight with
a nicely sung song, his devilish interpretation of Richard’s older
brother, the pipe-smoking, pseudo-sophisticated Arthur might be construed
as scene-stealing. A large cast, a long comedy and a lovely memory.
— Simon Saltzman
212-239-6200. $45 & $55.
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