The Indiana Festival Theatre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, directed by Dale McFadden, is a piece of summer nostalgia set in a small New England town on the Fourth of July, 1906. In the first scene, Abby Rowald as Essie, the Miller family matriarch, fans herself and declares that the day is going to be “a scorcher.” That drew the first of many sympathetic laughs from the audience.
O’Neill’s plays are full of sharply drawn, tragic, dark family drama. Ah, Wilderness! is his only comedy. He himself wondered a bit about its lightness, and some critics see it as a picture of home and family that he might have wished for. A strong and well-coached cast gets plenty of laughs in this production, but there are some dark moments that balance its levity.
Ah, Wilderness! is built around the Miller family. Nat Miller is the publisher of the local paper; he and his wife Essie have four children. In addition to the basic Miller family, there’s Nat’s spinster sister Lilly, a regular boarder, and Essie’s alcoholic brother Sid, a frequent guest. Rob Johansen does a terrific job as Sid, a role that’s become much more difficult since the play’s premiere in the thirties; Sid is an entertaining drunk. In a shadowy moment, the family vaguely understands that they facilitate his alcoholism. They even feel momentary guilt about it, but Johansen makes Sid such a funny charmer that they and the audience forgive him. Fontaine Syer played Lilly as dignified woman who understands and forgives Sid, but sadly refuses to link her life with his.
The Millers’ high school-aged middle son Richard, played by Thomas Crosby Beaver, is in the throes of a political and literary adolescence. On this Fourth of July he’s ready for the tumbrils of the French revolution to carry robber barons to the guillotine, and he’s wooing his local sweetheart with the poems of Swinburne and Omar Khayyam. The romance has its disappointments. In a moment of despair, he briefly flirts with the drunken dark side–personified by Molly Casey as Belle, a tough-talking tart. However, the play’s finale includes moonlight and mutual forgiveness, with Brianna McClellan as his sweet girlfriend, Muriel.
I want to mention Kate Suffern who plays Richard’s charming and long-suffering sister Mildred; Kerry Ipema; as a kitchen maid so clumsy that expected to hear the crash of broken china every time she got her hands on a plate; and Henry McDaniel III, in the part of a tough Irish bartender. Fred Duer’s banner-draped living room suited the show ideally, and Jennifer Sheshko’s costumes were a special treat.
Throughout Ah, Wilderness! the family balance between Abby Rowald and Henry Woronicz is a key to the show’s success. The two masterful actors argue, fuss and feud, all the while maintaining a basic feeling of respect. In the finale, they draw one another, their family and the play itself into their embrace.
The Indiana Festival Theatre’s production of Ah, Wilderness! continues in repertory with The Comedy of Errors at the Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center through July 31.