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THEATER REVIEW : 'Wilderness' Makes Long Night of Journey Into O'Neill

March 22, 1994|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA BEACH — Ah, well. When it came to long-winded plays, no American dramatist was better than Eugene O'Neill. His dramas have a famous tendency to turn into talk marathons, and "Ah, Wilderness!" is no exception, although as a nostalgic comedy it just hints at the morose anguish for which O'Neill is most celebrated.

Widely regarded as the flip side of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" for its depiction of a congenial Connecticut family near the turn of the century, "Ah, Wilderness!" is a piece of idealized Americana that glorifies the ordinary in middle-class life and memorializes small-town innocence. O'Neill said as much: "That's the way I would have liked my boyhood to have been."

He might have changed his mind, though, had he attended the Laguna Playhouse revival at the Moulton Theatre (through April 10). His characters drift among words, words, words, and the players can't make them their own.

The problem is compounded by listless pacing and static staging. At times the production is so sluggish you feel like you're watching an oil painting. This is one show you can use to catch up on your sleep.

A slight if lengthy work, "Ah, Wilderness!" is the only comedy among O'Neill's major plays. Apart from all those words, it depends to a high degree on atmosphere and sentiment to evoke a day in the lives of Nat and Essie Miller and their large, extended family.

All the action takes place on the Fourth of July, 1906, with attention centered on Nat and Essie's second-oldest son, Richard, whose coming of age serves as the play's real subject. (There are three other children in the household, in addition to Nat's sister Lily, Essie's visiting brother Sid and a housekeeper.)

Richard, still in high school but soon headed for college, is whipsawed by his experience of young love and seeming rejection. He also is given to spouting anarchist slogans, quoting the poetry of Swinburne and reading the avant-garde plays of Wilde, Ibsen and Shaw. And he has his first encounter--how could he not?--with that reliable O'Neill combination of alcohol and sordid sex.

As Richard, Rob Addison conveys a sense of the role in its overall outline. He portrays Richard's rebellious idealism and frustration, and he is a likable performer probably capable of capturing more than obvious surface details. On opening night, however, his characterization seemed too much a bland stereotype.

Meanwhile, George J. Woods as Nat (the wise, strong paterfamilias) and Phillip W. Beck as Sid (the boozy, wayward, guilt-ridden uncle) delivered more or less competent performances. But both were too bloodless and uninspired to ignite the production, notwithstanding momentary evidence of broad physical comedy.

Laurel Kelsh's portrait of Essie, the all-forgiving mother, also suffers from bland acting, though she managed to put enough dithering into the character to make her a nonstop fusspot. Among the rest of the cast, Carolyn Crotty gives perhaps the freshest performance in the minor role of Mildred, Richard's sister.

Except for Richard Dwight Odle's apt costumes, which lend an authentic feeling to the turn-of-the-century period, the technical values of this unimaginative revival fail to clarify the mood of the play beyond the expected. Sometimes they even muddy the point.

For example, Fourth of July firecrackers heard offstage are meant to startle us, but they sound muffled, like someone playing a snare drum in a closet. It's just a minor miscalculation, yet their lack of snap seems symptomatic of the production as a whole.

Less easy to overlook are the distracting shapes that sit like a top-heavy layer cake on the Miller home. When you finally puzzle them out as the surrounding hills and neighboring roofs of the Connecticut countryside, you realize they're a leaden match for director Robert Leigh's generally lackluster conception.

As is customary for playhouse offerings, considerable effort and expense have gone into the production. But this is one "Ah, Wilderness!" without a feeling of adventure, a placid museum piece that never gets dusted off.

* "Ah, Wilderness!," the Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m. (except March 20 and April 10); Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. (beginning March 26) . Ends April 10. $16-$20. (714) 494-8021. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes .

Grant Peterson: Tommy

Carolyn Crotty: Mildred

Derek Stefan: Arthur

Laurel Kelsh: Essie Miller

Brenda Parks: Lily Miller

George J. Woods: Nat Miller

Phillip W. Beck: Sid Davis

Rob Addison: Richard

Leland Wayne: David McComber

Shannon McCleerey: Nora

Tim-Murat Ozgener: Wint

Natasha Witkin: Belle

Dan Cole: Bartender

Joseph Bass: Salesman

Ryan Larson: Muriel McComber

A Laguna Playhouse production of a play by Eugene O'Neill, directed by Robert Leigh. Set design by Bradley Kaye. Costume design by Dwight Richard Odle. Lighting design by Don Gruber. Sound design by David Edwards. Stage manager: Steve Ramirez.

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