"Ah, Wilderness!," at The Utah Shakespearean Festival
by Eric D. Snider
Published on July 8, 2001
"Ah, Wilderness!" is a remarkable celebration of the American family, a gently funny tribute to life as it once was, and how it occasionally still is.
The time is July 4, 1906, in an patriotic, upper-class Connecticut neighborhood. Nat Miller (Philip Davidson) is a successful newspaper owner. His wife, Essie (Libby George), is a fretful, slightly daft mother to their four children; his prim sister Lily (Leslie Brott) and Essie's wacky-drunk brother Sid (Joe Cronin) live with them, too.
The second-oldest son, Richard (Jason Michael Spelbring), comes to be the focus of the play, though as with everything here, this evolves naturally and at a leisurely pace. He's "rebellious," which in 1906 means he likes to read books full of socialism and/or naughty poetry. His level-headed dad knows not to make too big a deal of it, but the father (Phil Hubbard) of the girl Richard's been seeing is fuming over some letters Richard wrote to the girl, which contain excerpts from the aforementioned tales of ribaldry. Mr. McComber insists Richard stay away from his daughter and presents a letter from the girl that seems to say she wants nothing more to do with him anyway.
Richard is devastated in a teen-angst sort of way: He storms around and says, "I'll show them!" a lot, commits minor acts of rebellion, and speaks in flowery, melodramatic tones. It is funny, and his rich, jovial family takes him only as seriously as is necessary.
A subplot has Lily increasingly sad over Sid's drinking. It seems they were once romantically involved, and Lily would take him back again, were it not for the alcoholism. One of the more poignant moments is a scene between Lily and Richard, her optimism contrasted with his cynicism even as their wounded souls are linked. Spelbring and Brott are fine actors, and Brott in particular makes the most of the limited attention her character receives from the script.
Early in the play, which is directed by James Edmondson, there is a scene that would appear to be a tangent or even a derailment: The family has dinner. Nothing dealing with Richard's situation is discussed, and Sid and Lily's relationship is only partially dealt with. Yet it's an utterly charming scene, full of pure, slice-of-life quaintness.
In contrast, the next-to-last scene has Richard finally getting a chance to reconcile with Muriel McComber (Denise Montgomery). This is important to the plot, obviously, but the scene is too long and lacks substance. It solidifies something we'd suspected all along: The plot is not important here. The characters, the tone and the warmth are. It's a play that seeks to convey a feeling, not an idea.
Though the entire cast is stellar, special praise is due to Spelbring, whose Richard carries the play (and the weight of the world) on his shoulders. Not a single false moment is to be found with him.
It's a surprisingly sunny play, considering its author, Eugene O'Neill, is better known for dark dramas. "Ah, Wilderness!" reminds us how great it is to be part of a family.
Copyright © Eric D. Snider.
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