Can a coming-of-age story of a sixteen-year-old boy in 1906 Waterbury, Connecticut still speak to a 21st Century audience? When it is Ah, Wilderness, the only comedy and still most-widely produced and loved of all Eugene O’Neill’s plays, as being currently excellently and imaginatively revived by American Conservatory Theatre, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” This is a play brimming over with one family’s shared moments of laughing with and laughing at each other, with unquestioned love and recurring exasperations existing side by side, and where crises feel in the moment so monumentally terrible only to become tomorrow’s family lore.
The Millers are in many ways an Every Family, at least that family most people either remember or dream about being able to remember. In many ways, there is nothing special or extraordinary about them; and like the families in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, that is what helps them to be so timeless a century later.
Richard is an intense reader of authors his mother does not approve and his father quietly admires (Ibsen, Shaw. Wilde, Swinburne, and Khayyam). He is an emotional roller coaster quick to jump on the soapbox to rail against the likes of July the 4th or to exit dramatically “out into the night” (even in broad daylight) after declaring like a Hamlet, “I am a pessimist.” Thomas Stagnitta plays to perfect pitch this 16-year-old boy heads-over-heels in love who only operates on the extreme ends of any scale during his waking hours. He is aw-shucks sweet in one moment and is a rebellious cyclone the next. He is puppy cute and all-too-funny in his first night of drinking and trying to hold his own with a lady of the night, a street sexy Caitlan Taylor who shows heart and humor toward her wooer. Richard is measurably green around the gills the next morning in ways we all remember too well from our wilder youth and and sincere to the core in his resolution never to venture down sin’s paths again. Mr. Stagnitta endears himself to an audience with a performance that is genuine, calculated yet natural, and wonderful to behold.
Richard’s love focus is Muriel, herself known to swing in teenage, up and down cycles of emotions as played by Rosa Palmeri. Together, they show in their entire beings that youthful magnetism and pull toward each other where neck veins pop, eyes explode in size, and smiles are bigger than quarter moons. How quickly such feelings turn into repulsed hurt and stubborn with folded-arm resolution never to see each other again as soon as a bump occurs along the way. Such happens when Thomas receives a letter written by Muriel under her father’s demanding eye [the so-pompous, so stern in manner, Adrian Roberts] renouncing her love of Richard). Of course, the two young lovers soon forgive all in a flash of brightened faces and tentative, too-funny first kiss.
Richard’s dad Nat Miller is the incomparable Anthony Fusco, showing dozens of nuanced ways to portray a father’s exasperation at his son’s latest outburst, his attempts at humor that lead to everyone else rolling knowing eyes, and his words of tenderness that finally gets through a son’s seemingly tough but vulnerable exterior. Messieurs Stagnitta and Fusco are particularly at their acting best as Nat gingerly tiptoes into a facts of life discussion while Richard freezes into a statue with a look of horror, followed by each doing all he can to convince the other that it is OK to drop the subject as now done.
Other family members are also masterfully brought to life by this seasoned cast. Rachel Ticotin is Richard’s overly proper, mother-hen doting, conservatively cautious mother Essie. The overseer of the household and family is constantly correcting the manners and habits of her children and her husband, demanding Nat do his fatherly duties in punishing Richard’s straying, and then swooping immediately in to protect her poor baby from any mean words or actions by Nat or anyone else. Margo Hall is the stock spinster character who is the good-hearted, live-in aunt and sister to Nat, Lily Miller, who quietly and knowingly observes all family goings-on, who advises only if asked, and is quickly apologetic for “being such burden.” She also daily says ‘no’ to the ongoing marriage proposals of her twenty-plus-year beau, Sid Davis, brother to Lily, everyone’s favorite, amiable uncle who courts too much the bottle and admits himself to being “a no-good bum.” Dan Hiatt is deliciously funny as he comes to the July 4th family dinner table totally soused, has a battle with the soupspoon, and eventually stumbles off for a needed nap, exiting as a one-man comedy show.
While Michael McIntire, Christina Liang, and Brandin Francis Osborne round out the rest of the family clan in not-too-noticeable performances as brothers Arthur and Tommy and sister Mildred, Jennifer Reddish wins several spontaneous, audience applauds as the clumsy Irish maid who plops food on the table as if handling sacks of flour and who only knows how to run, never walk, in and out of the dining room.
Beyond excellent performances by the cast, what makes this Ah Wilderness special is the ways Director Casey Stangl has made its story of an All-American family much more universal than just a nostalgic, outdated slice of 1906 life. By deciding to use a multi-racial cast, Mr. Stangl takes this story away from one tradition and shows that the teenage angst, family squabbles, parent-child struggles along with idea that it is at home where unconditional love most firmly exists to overlook and overcome most of the quirks and issues that land in all families of every kind. Also, the simple but stunning framed hint of a house by Ralph Funicello no longer just suggests the small-town Connecticut of yesteryear but can translate to many family’s homes, in many locations of the U.S. While Jessie Amoroso’s wonderful costumes do speak authentically of the turn-of-the-last-century, there is still a timelessness to the set, the family, and the situations the family faces that can lead a 21st Century audience to remember and/or to hope for a family where true fondness, acceptance of foibles and sins, and genuine love really do exist.
Congratulations to American Conservatory Theatre for reminding us all of such a family.
Rating: 5 E’s
Ah Wilderness continues at the Geary stage of American Conservatory Theatre through November 8, 2016. Tickets are available at http://act-sf.org or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.