If chilling domestic dramas like "Desire Under the Elms," "Mourning Becomes Electra" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" make you reluctant to dip your toes into the Eugene O'Neill oeuvre, Eclipse Theatre's disarming revival of 1933's "Ah, Wilderness!" might change your mind.
A heartwarming celebration of family unity, O'Neill's only comedy stands in sharp contrast to the playwright's typically gut-wrenching examinations of family dysfunction. In fact, one could describe this sentimental tale of a young man's coming-of-age as "O'Neill lite." But what it lacks in gravitas, "Ah, Wilderness!" makes up for in charm.
"Ah, Wilderness!"★ ★ ★
Location: The Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, (773) 935-6875 or eclipsetheatre.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 2
Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes including intermission
Tickets: $28, $23 for seniors, $18 for students
Parking: Metered street parking at the adjacent Saint Alphonsus Catholic Church parking lot at Southport and Oakdale
Rating: Suitable for teens and older
Director/set designer Kevin Hagan keeps sentiment in check in his nicely paced, comfortably nostalgic production. Its greatest strength rests with the sincerity of his agreeable cast, led by Alex Weisman, a terrific young actor who earned a Joseph Jefferson Award in 2009 when he was a Northwestern University undergraduate. Weisman -- whose credits include TimeLine, Chicago Shakespeare, Goodman and Lookingglass theaters -- may yet be an up-and-comer. but I don't suspect he'll wear that label much longer.
Set in Connecticut, which also happens to be home to the doomed Tyrones of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," the play takes place over the July 4 holiday in 1906. Most of the action unfolds in the warm, sepia-tinted home of fearless newspaperman and sympathetic father Nat Miller (played by Brian Parry with droll humor and obvious affection) and his good-natured, if somewhat fussy wife, Essie (Cheri Chenoweth), easily the most successful and likely the happiest of O'Neill's romantic pairs. Less content is Essie's brother Sid (Kevin Scott), a genial sort whose drinking has cost him the heart of Nat's sister Lily, played with the right touch of melancholy by Rebecca Prescott, whose performance suggests a woman worn down by disappointment.
Celebrating the holiday with Nat and Essie are their children: eldest son Arthur (Nick Vidal), a Yale University undergrad; daughter Mildred (Rae Gray); youngest son Tommy (Ben Parkhill) and 17-year-old Richard (Weisman in a performance at once deliciously melodramatic and keenly perceptive). The play centers around rebellious Richard, an impulsive, acutely sensitive young man -- recently acquainted with Oscar Wilde and Omar Khayyám -- who spends his time brooding over his sputtering romance with a local gal named Muriel (Fiona Robert) and waxing philosophic over social and economic injustice.
Teased by his family and rejected by Muriel, Richard drowns his sorrows in the arms of a bottle-blonde tart named Belle (a subtly conniving Margaret Grace), who informs him that $5 will buy her time but it won't reform her.
While dated, "Ah, Wilderness!" has a quaint humor that never fails to engage. That's especially true in a gently raucous dinner in which the family indulges its slightly soused patriarch and the highly inebriated Uncle Sid, and in Nat's awkward attempts to explain the birds-and-the-bees to the guileless Richard.
Ultimately Eclipse's production owes much to the ensemble and the genuine sincerity that underscores these actors' most convincing performances. They're reason enough to test O'Neill's waters.