If it were February Ah, Wilderness at Arena Stage would be the perfect Valentine to its playwright, Eugene O'Neill. A sweet, sentimental comedy filled with nostalgia and memories that are recognizable in a modern day audience, this production, carefully directed by Kyle Donnelly is a delight.
Written in 1932 when Mr. O'Neill was already a prominent American playwright who had earned three Pulitzer Prizes, Ah, Wilderness is a gem of a play written to reflect the ideal family and childhood that Mr. O'Neill most certainly did not experience in real life. Yet, do not expect to roll your eyes with cynicism at the foibles of the Miller family taking place a century ago. The director and cast bring genuine emotion to this simple story and it is that respect and love of the material that makes this production a delight to audiences of all ages.
It is the 4th of July, 1906, Nat Miller (Rick Foucheux) and his wife, Essie (Nancy Robinette) are celebrating with their family. Of their 4 children present, their second son, 17 year old Richard(William Patrick Riley) is in the angst suffered by every teenager from the dawn of time. His romance with the girl next door, Muriel McComber (June Schreiner) has been discovered by her disapproving father (Leo Erickson). When Muriel is forced to write a letter breaking things off with Richard, he impulsively decides to lash out by going out with the worldly college friend (James Flanagan) of his elder brother, Arthur (Davis Chandler Hasty). Meanwhile the poignant dance between the former sweethearts Essie's brother, Uncle Sid (Jonathan Lincoln Fried) and Nat's sister, Lily (Kimberly Schraf) continues its never-ending repetitions broken forever by Sid's alcoholism.
There is not a weak link in this cast from the bratty little brother Tommy (Thomas Langston and T.J. Langston) to the hardworking clumsy maid Norah (Allison Leigh Corke). Talisa Friedman is funny as the teasing teenage sister Mildred and Davis Chandler Hasty has the right amount of haughty pride as the college student brother, Arthur. In smaller roles James Flanagan and Leo Erickson provide excellent support to the main characters.
Ms. Donnelly working with Michael Roth as the composer, music director and arranger has provided well thought out musical transitions using well chosen songs of the time period that set the mood and enhance the story. In particular cast member, Pearl Rhein, skillfully accompanies most of the music with her violin. Ms. Rhein also well plays the lady of the evening, Belle, whom Richard has an interesting encounter with during his adolescent rebellion in the second act.
As the poignant thwarted lovers Sid and Lily, Jonathan Lincoln Friend and Kimberly Schraf are golden in the darkest subplot of the play. Uncle Sid is that alcoholic relative that one used to laugh at his antics at the dining table just as the Millers do, yet when all his said and done, his promises to change will always remain broken and his love for Lily unrewarded. Ms. Schraf's Lily is the stoic maiden aunt who occasionally lets her guard crack only to have her heart bleed fresh every time that she does.
June Schreiner was the discovery of Arena Stage's Oklahoma as a true teenaged Ado Annie. Here she plays the young love of Richard and her charm, beauty and willingness to let her emotions exude show that the promise of her earlier debut was simply the promise of her new talent emerging strongly with each character she portrays. It has been a delight to see her professional career begin at Arena and with her graduation from high school eminent one can only look forward to a long and fruitful career whatever path Ms. Schreiner decides to follow.
As the angst ridden Richard, William Patrick Riley is pitch perfect. It would be so easy to play Richard's emotional arc false. Mr. Riley does not. His Richard is a genuine teenager full of hopes and flaws and his journey through the wringer of what is ultimately one day in his life is fulsome, energetic and fun. This is a coming-of-age moment for Richard, yet it is not the pinnacle of his life, just a slice of his journey to adulthood that is a lot of fun to watch.
And as the anchors of this family, Rick Foucheux and Nancy Robinette are simply the perfect couple. They work so well together that they simple are the heads of this family. Working through the foibles and dramas at the end, they are simply a long married couple that are deeply in love.
Ah, Wilderness will be performed in the Fichandler Theater at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theater through April 8, 2012. It is part of the Eugene O'Neill Festival taking part in conjunction with The Shakespeare Theater at the Harman Center. For tickets and other performance information as well as information on other events in the Eugene O'Neill Festival please visit www.arenastage.org.