In his 1932 play Ah, Wilderness, Eugene O’Neill returns to familiar themes such as family life, alcoholism and thwarted idealism but it stands out among his work for having a lightness of touch and event moments of comedy. Set in Connecticut on July 4 in 1906, it is a nostalgic family drama that is said to be O’Neill’s reinvention of his own less than happy childhood brought up by a distant, drug-addicted mother. In Ah, Wilderness!, the central character of 17-year-old Richard Miller is roughly the same age that young Eugene would have been in 1906. But, instead of a dysfunctional family, there is a sweet, loving mother and a father who is stern but a big softy underneath, both proud of their poetry-loving son.
The play’s charm is beautifully captured in a new, trimmed-down production directed by Natalie Abrahami at the Young Vic. However, she has expanded on the autobiographical aspects of the play by having the author represented on stage throughout by David Annen, describing the setting of scenes and contemplating the action, unseen by his characters.
This sense of memory informs Dick Bird’s design which replaces the play’s conventional interiors, whether a Connecticut house or the bar of a brothel, with an expressionistic set resembling an abandoned house that has been invaded by sand dunes. It is as if the characters have returned from a past that is lost, never to be restored.
George Mackay is excellent as Richard, comical in his teenage angst and petulance, quoting the poetry of Swinburne to shock his elders, but also more complex and believable in his portrayal of a young man exploring new emotions and struggling to find his identity.
As his parents, Martin Marquez and Janie Dee are a genial couple, with a mix of exasperation and tolerance at their son’s rebellious and often over-dramatic behaviour. Even the spectre of alcoholism is handled with a lightness of tone unknown in other O’Neill plays, with Uncle Sid’s drunken antics portrayed as a source of humour rather than tragedy by Dominic Rowan. Aunt Lily, played by Susannah Wise, is a sympathetic figure of pity, hopelessly in love with Sid despite her belief in temperance. Her quiet resignation to his alcoholism is a counterpoint to the strident outspoken women who, in 1906, were helping to propel the United States towards Prohibition which was in its final days in 1932.
This is a heart-warming production, filled with charm and comedy – a contrast to O’Neill’s modern tragedy Long Day’s Journey Into Night which is also set in a Connecticut home just before World War One but with a dysfunctional family and much darker themes. This comparison may expose Ah, Wilderness! as one of O’Neill’s slighter works but, shortened to an hour and 55 minutes, it is a lively and enjoyable show that reveals a different side to one of America’s greatest playwrights.
Every now and again two of our reviewers disagree on a show they have seen. Read Stephen Collins’ review of Ah, Wilderness! for an alternate take on the show. Let us know your thoughts if you have seen the show.