Would plays like King John and Henry VI, Part Two get produced anywhere on the professional stage if they hadn't been written by Shakespeare? (They aren't produced much as it is.) Lesser-known plays in the canon enjoy a kind of esteem by association.
So it is with Interplayers' choice for its current production. Ah, Wilderness!, the Eugene O'Neill comedy with no plot to speak of and not much to say about the human condition, nonetheless soldiers on because its author shredded his soul for all to see in Long Day's Journey Into Night. This is his flipside play, in which his fictional family is scarcely less sentimentalized than the Brady Bunch.
The focal character declares that pessimism is the only attitude with which to confront life; the rest of the play belies his callow opinion. Still, surely the pendulum can swing too far in either direction. It's healthy to maintain a little skepticism and even cynicism in the light of this Norman Rockwell theatrical portrait. For what's really at stake in this play? Richard Miller needs to grow up. Will he waste his youth in drink and debauchery? Or will he display laudable maturity and remain true to his beloved Muriel? (Yes, it's that kind of play.) Will the drunken uncle and the proper aunt, who have been flirting with marriage for the better part of 16 years, finally be able to accommodate one another's flaws?
It's a pleasure to welcome Robin Stanton, Interplayers' new producing artistic director, as someone who can ride herd on this warhorse. Stanton guides this production with confidence and creativity. An opening pantomime introduces each of the characters one by one and emphasizes the Miller family's unity and moral uprightness. The final image of marital contentment is underscored quite nicely in a slow fade-out engineered by lighting designer Jason Laws. A dining room scene, full of drunken storytelling, portrays everyone unselfconsciously having a good time.
Stanton uses the resources of the stage well. For example, in a romantic nighttime beachfront scene between two young lovers, the actors use what is in other scenes the edge of the family's sitting room, as if it were a wooden rail along which they can playfully balance themselves. Directorial choices like these lend a believable and naturalistic touch to the acting in several scenes.
There were several notable performances among the actors. As Nat Miller, the head of the family, Keith Burkland turns in a jaunty, cheerful, avuncular performance that contrasts strongly with the sensitive but still creepy child molester he played in How I Learned to Drive a couple of seasons back. Unlike other O'Neill father-figures, Nat knows how to give advice and when to stop drinking. Burkland is hilarious as he muddles his way through "The Talk" with his son, always keeping the sexual references ludicrously vague.
Essie, Nat's wife and the matriarch of the Miller bunch, exemplifies both vitality and selfless concern for others. Carolyn Crabtree conveys this woman's glee in putting over a practical joke on her husband, in fretting over how late Richard is out tonight, and deluding herself about how sternly she punishes her son, even as she blatantly coddles him.
There's an old maid in the play, Aunt Lily the teetotaler, and Karen Nelsen is prim without being puritanical in the role. Her finest moment comes when her irresponsible suitor gets inebriated yet again; Nelsen conveys not merely condemnation, as a lesser actor might, but the irritation and shame that comes with being linked to a drunken fool.
The drunken uncle is essayed by Robert D. Heath Jr., who pulls off the difficult feat of acting drunk believably and actually being funny while doing it.
In the part of Belle, the tart who tries to seduce unsuspecting rubes and part them from their money, Lauren Hendler manages to convey a certain sultriness, contempt for her clients and despairing self-disgust all in a few brief minutes of stage time.
As Richard, however, Ranen McLanahan gets the naivete right but misses the note of defiance. Partly, he's hampered by how dated the script is; partly, he's just too ineffectual as the poet-rebel.
Ah, Wilderness! is a pleasant little comedy. It affirms those notorious family values and caters to our craving for nostalgia. Having been around for nearly 70 years, it'll probably last for several more generations. But the best comedies test the couples who end up married at the final curtain; they don't merely reaffirm those married ones' right to complacency (or ours, for that matter). Depression-era audiences at the play's premiere, needing an anodyne for their worries, wanted a glimpse of a quieter and (especially) more affluent time. Today, we may like O'Neill's comedy for moral reasons: It reminds us that Americans are still capable of generous and honorable behavior. The danger for us, as we peer back to the turn of another century, is that we'll take this portrait of moral uprightness as yet more evidence of moral purity in the Good Old Days.
But good old days like this never were -- not for O'Neill, and not for us. Ah, Wilderness! rings false in the manner of most wish fulfillment. It's the life O'Neill never led.