No one has ever taken young Richard— a high-school senior with raging hormones, a fondness for revolutionary rhetoric, and a heart he’d wear on his sleeve if it weren’t forever leaping into his throat—very seriously in Ah, Wilderness! Not his parents, nor his siblings, nor the tart he gets drunk with on July 4, 1906 in an attempt to prove something to the sweet young thing he thinks has done him wrong. (She hasn’t, really, but he doesn’t know that yet.)
Nor the directors, critics, and casting agents who’ve largely ignored Richard while tossing bouquets at the stars playing his onstage relatives (a roster that includes George M. Cohan, Will Rogers, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Mickey Rooney, and Jackie Gleason).
So it’s nice that Kyle Donnelly’s warmly nostalgic revival of Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy finally gives the lad his due. Richard is, after all, an authorial stand-in, idealized along with the family members who patronize him so good-naturedly while they’re all engaged in activities that would leave most O’Neill characters agonized or dead by the final curtain.
Take the drinking. William Patrick Riley’s excitably naïve, enthusiastically self-dramatizing Richard isn’t the only one who comes home rubber-limbed after 4th of July festivities. His soul-of-rectitude dad (an excellent Rick Foucheux), and supposedly-on-the-wagon uncle Sid (Jonathan Lincoln Fried, just fey enough to suggest that Sid may be drinking to avoid other issues) arrive at the family manse so pickled they’d surely earn themselves cirrhosis in The Iceman Cometh. Here though, they’re merely tipplers (Sid’s a sad one, admittedly), forgiven by a loving family almost before they have a chance to apologize for the state they’re in.
O’Neill’s ladies are also gentled up a bit. That tart (Pearl Rhein) that Richard squires to a local dive may remind you of O’Neill’s poor, doomed Anna Christie, but there’s a lot of sass left in her this time around. Meanwhile, unstinting understanding is all that’s offered by the loyal matriarch (Nancy Robinette) and spinster aunt (Kimberly Schraf) that these reprobates would doubtless reduce to recriminative harpies in Long Day’s Mourning Becomes Misbegotten Under the Elms. This is a portrait of the close-knit clan O’Neill wishes he’d grown up in, painted with a warmth he found harder to summon elsewhere.
Donnelly’s handsome, emotionally generous staging, decorously dressed by Nan Cibula-Jenkins, with starlight and a rising moon supplied by Russell Champa, evokes memories not just of America’s golden era, but also of Arena’s, when richly upholstered Broadway classics offered a counterpoint to the more astringent works of Strindberg and Ibsen. The company is definitely playing to its strengths here.
And as a bonus, it’s showcasing a smart, goofy, utterly winning performance by Riley as the hopelessly romantic, poetry-obsessed high-school senior O’Neill must’ve wished he’d been: a kid who didn’t suffer depression and alcoholism and ship out to sea in his late teens, but instead grew up in the bosom of a loving clan that embraced his ability to espouse two contradictory opinions simultaneously, that smiled as he lost a wrestling match with his own jacket, and that tolerated his hurling himself onto settees in the sort of furiously energetic exhaustion known only to the young. He’s a bundle of unprocessed emotions and testosterone, this idealized youngster—amusing to be around in ways the young O’Neill doubtless wasn’t. No doubt he’d not have grown up to be a great playwright, but then, as O’Neill established elsewhere, life has its trade-offs.