O’Neill comedy ‘Ah, Wilderness’ comes to life at ACT

In his only comedy, “Ah, Wilderness!,” written in 1932 in the midst of the Depression but set in 1906, the normally dour playwright Eugene O’Neill was imagining a young man’s struggle to create his own identity in a happy middle-class home quite unlike O’Neill’s own troubled background.

But of course he couldn’t help but include some dark notes, nicely rendered in American Conservatory Theater’s current production, for which students from its training program were cast in some of the roles (with mixed results).

That combination of light comedy and a strain of melancholy is what makes this play — according to the ACT program, O’Neill’s most popular — somewhat Chekhovian in tone, which is to its benefit.

The Miller family’s teenage son, Richard (Thomas Stagnitta, overacting much of the time and affecting an oddly wooden stance), is besotted with romantic poetry, Oscar Wilde, contemporary drama (especially “Hedda Gabler”) and socialism. (In fact, the play’s title derives from a line in “The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam,” from which Richard passionately quotes.)

His literary preferences, plus an unfortunate night out at a seedy bar, distress his anxious mother, Essie (a nicely modulated turn by Rachel Ticotin) and his calm, newspaper-owner father, Nat (the always wonderfully low-key Anthony Fusco).

Richard’s siblings are merely amused by his posturing and glowering as he intones dramatic poetry (in an unnaturally deep and resonant voice that’s at times quite amusing) and pines away for his nervous girlfriend, Muriel (Rosa Palmeri), who’s been forbidden to see him by her stern father (a forceful cameo by Adrian Roberts).

The story is meant to be about Richard’s rather tame (as it seems to us in the 21st century) coming-of-age.

But, at least in this production, the lifelong, unconsummated love between Nat’s brother, the feckless, alcoholic bachelor Uncle Sid (a hilarious and poignant Dan Hiatt) and Essie’s live-in “spinster” sister, Aunt Lily (played by Margo Hall with a nice combination of delicacy and steeliness), seems more textured and interesting. It certainly enhances what otherwise would be a fairly unremarkable, and certainly old-fashioned, tale of adolescent angst.

O’Neill’s dialogue sometimes rings jarringly in the ear, with exclamations like “Pshaw!” and awkward phrasings. But under Casey Stangl’s brisk direction, the two-hour-and-40-minute play (with one intermission) moves by swiftly.

And Ralph Funicello’s abstract set, including a particularly luminous and minimalist riverside scene, serves the play well.

REVIEW
Ah, Wilderness!
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: Tuesdays-Sundays, closes Nov. 8
Tickets: $20-$100
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

Jean Schiffman

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