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Theater review: At Arena Stage, enter the ‘Wilderness’
BY GAIL CHOOCHAN
At first glance, the most striking thing about “Ah, Wilderness!” at the Arena Stage is its set. The stage floor has been beautifully transformed to a piece a paper, covered with lines of script handwriting. And the soft lighting only heightens the opening scene as the cast of this Eugene O’Neill play files in, marking the stage with their shadows.
However grand it is on appearance, “Ah, Wilderness!” is quite a personal production.
“Ah, Wilderness!” is part of Washington’s two-month-long celebration of all things O’Neill, who is considered one of the greatest American playwrights. His works, which include “The Iceman Cometh” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” earned three Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize.
O’Neill gets sentimental in his only comedy, which draws from his own upbringing and an idyllic one he never got to have. “Ah, Wilderness!” follows a middle-class family coming together for July Fourth in Connecticut in 1906. Expect parental banter, sibling playfulness, lots of teenage angst and, of course, the obnoxious drunk uncle.
The head of this family is Nat Miller, a local newspaperman, played with wonderful restraint by Rick Foucheux. And Arena found the perfect actress to play wife Essie, mother to their large family. Nancy Robinette is a pleasure to watch, as she fiddles about the stage rearranging the dining table or being too kind with her children’s punishment.
Causing the family the most drama is their 17-year-old bookworm of a son, Richard, who’s dealing with radical ideas and on top of that, girl trouble. His coming-of-age story line is O’Neill’s main focus.
William Patrick Riley plays Richard with almost the right amount of teen anguish, annoyance and melodrama. But sometimes, you just want to send him back to his room.
Although, it’s a comedy, it’s not side-splitting humor as much as it is a chuckle and a smile. And there are plenty of sweet moments as well, specifically between Foucheux’s subtle patriarch and Robinette’s overly doting mother. There’s a nice rhythmic pattern with their conversations, reminiscent of television couples of yesteryear. As two of Washington’s finest actors, it’s a bit disappointing to see them make their curtain call before Arena newcomer Riley in an average performance.
June Schreiner as Richard’s love interest Muriel McComber, however, is a delightful surprise with her few moments onstage. One of the play’s highlights is when Richard and Muriel escape to the beach for a secret rendezvous. Not only is it a turning point in the play, but it’s also where set designer Kate Edmunds’ work truly shines. Strings of tiny lights fall onto the stage as a moon paper lantern slowly rises from almost thin air. Pair that with Russell Champa’s sand-inspired lighting and you have an absolutely breathtaking moment.
“Ah, Wilderness!” runs at two hours and 40 minutes (with a 15-minute intermission and a five-minute pause), and can feel sluggish at times. And it doesn’t help when scenes such as Uncle Sid’s dinner table tirade go overboard in length and overacting.
“Ah, Wilderness!” offers a charming look at this early 20th-century family, but be prepared for a lengthy visit.
What: “Ah, Wilderness!” by Eugene O’Neill
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington
When: Through April 8. Fichlander Theater.
Info: 202/488-3300; arenastage.org