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Theater Review: "Ah, Wilderness!" at Arena Stage

Arena’s Eugene O’Neill Festival kicks off with one of the best shows of the season so far.

Rick Foucheux and Nancy Robinette in Ah, Wilderness!. Photograph by Scott Suchman

The most moving aspect of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! isn’t the cheerful dysfunction of the Miller family, or the way it evokes the sullen naiveté of youth, or even its heartwarming portrayal of romance at various stages of life. What makes this play–and Arena Stage’s outstanding current production in particular–so poignant is the fact that the fictional Millers were written as an idealized version of O’Neill’s own family, and he bestowed upon them all the kindness, tolerance, and good-natured ridiculousness that most unhappy teenagers long for in their own relatives.

This model is as much a part of contemporary culture as ever–there are shades of the Millers in Modern Family, and the furious, tortured-teenage-son trope crops up everywhere from the Nietzsche-reading wannabe fighter pilot in Little Miss Sunshine to the sullen teen in Wedding Crashers (it’s fair to assume that if Richard Miller were around today, he’d be sporting goth accessories and listening to Marilyn Manson). In Arena’s current production, directed superbly by Kyle Donnelly, the Miller family are at home in their seaside Connecticut town preparing to celebrate the Fourth of July (or this “stupid farce” as Richard refers to it), despite the moody, cynical interjections of their own hormonal wretch.

Amid some cheerful squabbling, erupting firecrackers, and the celebratory feel of a summer holiday, parents Nat (Rick Foucheux) and Essie (Nancy Robinette) worry about Richard (William Patrick Riley), who’s pining for a next-door neighbor, Muriel (June Schreiner), and consoling himself with subversive literature–everything from Swinburne to the scandalous George Bernard Shaw, whose plays are so vile, Essie says, that they weren’t even allowed to be staged in New York. The horror!

The easy familiarity of the Millers’ dynamics combined with an all-too-real wistfulness for the simple dramas of youth are drawn out perfectly by the cast, whose mutual affection and comfortable interactions are so real, so absorbing, that it’s hard not to feel like a part of the action. From a mild deception involving bluefish to the drunken tomfoolery of Uncle Sid (Jonathan Lincoln Fried), there are elements almost everyone will recognize. Also present, although less obvious, are the pathos and pessimism that became the hallmarks of O’Neill’s oeuvre, particularly in the scenes involving Uncle Sid and the woman who continually rejects him because of his bad behavior, Aunt Lily (Kimberly Schraf). “I’m a dirty rotten drunk, and if I had any guts I would kill myself,” says Sid after one embarrassing episode of intoxication.

Donnelly’s stamp on the play is masterful, from the musical interludes he uses to punctuate scenes to the gleeful humor he draws out of the cast. As patriarch Nat, Foucheux is as strong as ever, combining a gentle playfulness with the gruff, businesslike affect of the turn-of-the-century American male. His relationship with Essie, played superbly by Robinette, is one of the real high points of the play, both touching and somewhat nostalgic in the display of their sweet, indulgent love for each other. As a foil for this relationship, the tragic Sid and Lily are compelling and deeply sad, their flawed dynamic a footnote on the ravaging effects addiction can have on its bystanders.

The stars of the third act are Riley as Richard and Schreiner as Muriel, whose innocent, tempestuous relationship seems strangely adult. Both manipulate each other and use emotional blackmail to get their way, but both are also naive and quick to forgive. One of the breakout stars of 2010’s Oklahoma!, Schreiner seems even stronger here, managing to truly dazzle with her limited role. Riley is brilliant as the peevish, grumpy Richard, all hormones and aggravation. Kate Edmund‘s delightful set makes the most out of the space, and offers a few charming surprises, while Nan Cibula-Jenkins‘s costumes are the only thing to remind us that this all-too-familiar cluster of hopes and heartbreak was written almost 80 years ago.

This riveting, cheery, emotive production is a real testament of what Arena can do at its best, which is make you laugh while breaking your heart a little. It’s certainly set a high bar for the rest of the O’Neill Festival to follow.

Ah, Wilderness! is at Arena Stage through April 8. Tickets ($55 and up) are available through Arena’s website.

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