A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Brea-and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness-
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
Those lines from the "Rubaiyat" are quoted by the romatical, intellectural, would-be cynical and love inebriated Richard Miller, the young hero of Eugene O'Neil's "Ah, Wilderness!" which just opened at the Indianapolis Repertory Theatre. The "wilderness" of the play is a small town in Connecticut on the Fourth of July in 1906. It's O'Neil's affectionate look backward to family, warmth and solidarity that probably only exists in affectionate looks backward. The IRT production boasts a very strong cast in key roles with tight yet flowing direction by Janet Allen, a lovely design by Russell Metheny and great period costumes by Gail Brassard.
The young Richard Miller, played by Andrew Ahrens, is just a high school senior, but he's already hard at work being a dangerous radical intellectual. His mother Essie Miller, played with an almost Gracie Allen dittsiness by Priscella Lindsay, has been checking young Richard's bookshelf. She's found radical plays by Shaw and Ibsen, and sensual poetry by Oscar Wilde, Swinburne, and of course, Fitzgerald. This is bad, but the worst is that Richard has been trying to use them to educate his girl friend, Muriel, played by Ellen Morgan. A collection of these suitably uplifting quotations has fallen into the hands of her father, David McComber. He's forced Muriel to write Richard a letter saying that she never wants to see him again.
Richard's disillusion is hard for him to handle and it takes a drunken "walk on the wild side" to sober him up. In the sobering process his father, Nat Miller, played by Joseph Culliton has to deliver on of those "man to man" talks that fathers are so famous for avoiding. Culliton's timing was so nicely worked out that each time he paused to say an uncomfortable "umph," the audience laughed louder.
Two other members of the Miller household were especially notable. Mark Goetzinger delivered a finely grained portrait of a difficult character, the fun loving but drunken Uncle Sid. Lyn Perkins was noble, but not unpleasantly so, as his long suffering love, Aunt Lily.
Comedy wasn't O'Neil's strong suit and "Ah, Wilderness!" is the only one he wrote. It's nice to have the opportunity to see this side of his work in a good production.
Eugene O'Neil's "Ah, Wilderness!" plays through May nineteenth at the Indianapolis Repertory Theatre. Show times at 635-5252.