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O'Neill Family Values, With a Light Touch

Theater review: South Coast Repertory's 'Ah, Wilderness!' gives warmth and respect to a play often regarded as one of the stage giant's lesser efforts.

September 14, 1998|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ah, progress.

At the turn of the last century, when a middle-class father wanted to make sure his teenage son knew enough about sex, he took him aside and talked to him, however haltingly. Nowadays, of course, father and son could simply log on to the Internet, and avoid all that hemming and hawing.

They do it the old-fashioned way in Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness," set in 1906. The hems and haws of Raye Birk, playing the father in Martin Benson's warmly satisfying staging at South Coast Repertory, rise to splendid comic heights.

As O'Neill's sunniest play, "Ah, Wilderness!" is probably performed more often than any of his others. Yet the tone of this 1933 comedy is so uncharacteristic of O'Neill that it's frequently the subject of mild condescension. Yes, it's a nice play, we're told, but it wasn't as true to O'Neill's own experiences as his more depressing works, and therefore it isn't as good.

O'Neill's own tortured family experiences are hardly reflective of everyone's, however. Beyond the simple fact that people like happy endings, it's possible that there really are more families like the Millers in "Ah, Wilderness!" than there are like the rather grotesque Tyrones in O'Neill's autobiographical "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

"Ah, Wilderness!" may contain a touch of flattery of the upper-middle-class people who made up (and still make up) the primary theatergoing audience, but it also offers a touch of truth about many people's lives.

The primary conflict in the play is an evergreen--teenage rebellion--and even now some families survive those stormy years without grave damage.

The secondary issue in the play, treated in a subplot about tipsy Uncle Sid, is how to cope with an addiction. The play shows how easy it is, in modern parlance, to "enable" the addict, and how this can drag on indefinitely, reaching an emotional stalemate. While O'Neill doesn't wallow in abject despair about this, as he does in some of his other works, he's not writing "Ozzie and Harriet" either.

Benson and company betray no condescension toward "Ah, Wilderness!" While the characters are sometimes naive, they're not painted as hicks. They exist in a world that, at least for these three hours, seems authentic enough. And while three hours may sound like a lot of time, the pacing suggests midsummer languor rather than awkward stagecraft.

James Youmans' basic household set is plain and simple, with walls that could profitably use a color that might distinguish them better from the summer suits designed by Walker Hicklin. Beyond the walls, however, on a backdrop, is an impressionistic wash of midsummer green and blue.

The severity of the household design may be part of an intentional decision to contrast the mundane domestic world with the dreamy beachscape that Youmans designed for a scene in the last act, when young Richard spouts his most self-consciously inflated declarations of love to his previously unseen girlfriend Muriel. A distant lighthouse interrupts the darkness of the nocturnal horizon, while a big moon casts shimmering rays on the waves. Chris Parry's patterns of light and shadow enhance the romance.

The play is essentially the coming-of-age story of Richard, who plans to attend Yale. South Coast newcomer Michael Reisz is wonderful in the role. He still looks like a juvenile, in sharp contrast to his pipe-smoking older brother (Kevin Gregg) and the Yale friend (Jason Low) who leads Richard astray. This Richard barks out his teenage frustrations and his adult pretensions with great confidence, but he assumes the air of a frightened deer when he winds up in a bar with a loose woman (Karen Stapleton) at his side.

Birk adeptly handles the wry observations and slow rages of Richard's father. Nearly everyone else in the cast is equally sure-footed. During the great dinner scene of the first act, it's as fascinating to watch the reactions of Marilyn McIntyre as Richard's fussy mother hen and Jennifer Griffin as his frustrated aunt as it is to watch the florid-faced antics of Richard Doyle as the grandly soused Uncle Sid.

In his one brief appearance as Muriel's choleric father, Hal Landon Jr. is the very model of a resolute prig, with his prim bowler hat over his bald pate adding an especially droll note. And Rona Benson's Muriel, carefully arranging her curls before allowing Richard to kiss her, also makes much of her one scene.

*

"Ah, Wilderness!," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 11. $18-$45. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 3 hours.

Michael Reisz: Richard Miller

Raye Birk: Nat Miller

Marilyn McIntyre: Essie Miller

Richard Doyle: Sid

Jennifer Griffin: Lily

Kevin Gregg: Arthur Miller

Brenda Kenworthy: Mildred Miller

Joey Valenti/Danny Whitehead: Tommy Miller

Hal Landon Jr.: David McComber

Rona Benson: Muriel McComber

Martha McFarland: Norah

Jason Low: Wint Selby

Karen Stapleton: Belle

Art Koustik: Bartender

Don Took: Salesman

Eugene O'Neill's play. Directed by Martin Benson. Sets by James Youmans. Lights by Chris Parry. Costumes by Walker Hicklin. Music and sound by Michael Roth. Wigs by Carol F. Doran. Stage manager Julie Haber.

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