Anthony Fusco, left, and Dan Hiatt are excellent in American Conservatory Theater’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy “Ah, Wilderness!” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

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

AhAmerican Conservatory TheaterAnthony FuscoCasey StanglDan HiattEugene O’NeillMargo HallRachel TicotinThomas StagnittaWilderness!

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Dr. Vincent Matthews, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, said Tuesday that student would not be back in school before the end of this calendar year. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Superintendent: City schools will not reopen before the end of the year

San Francisco public schools won’t reopen to students for the rest of… Continue reading

A Muni-inspired prop bus stands near Ghirardelli Square as Marvel Studios films scenes for its upcoming movie, "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. (Samantha Laurey/Special to S.F Examiner)
Marvel Superhero film now shooting in San Francisco

It’s the first feature film to return to The City since the pandemic

The Telegraph Quartet is pictured during its SF Music Day 2020 recording session at the striking, beautifully lit and almost empty Herbst Theatre. (Courtesy Marcus Phillips)
SF Music Day goes virtual with Herbst broadcast

Performers pre-record sets in empty, iconic theater

The admissions process at the academically competitive Lowell High School is set to change this year due to coronavirus restritions. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Lowell’s selective admissions process put on hold this year — and more changes may be in the works

School board votes unanimously to use normal student assignment lottery for competitive school

San Francisco has failed to reduce traffic deaths enough to meet its Vision Zero goal. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
San Francisco not on track to meet Vision Zero goals by 2024

Hamstrung by state laws, dwindling budget and limited resources, SFMTA tries to chart path forward

Most Read