Breaking News Bar
updated: 8/2/2012 2:20 PM

Sincerity, affection underscore Eclipse's 'Wilderness' revival

hello
Success - Article sent! close
  • The impressive Alex Weisman, left, plays idealistic Richard in love with Fiona Robert's girl-next-door in Eclipse Theatre's delightful revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!"

    The impressive Alex Weisman, left, plays idealistic Richard in love with Fiona Robert's girl-next-door in Eclipse Theatre's delightful revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!"
    courtesy of Scott Cooper

  • A July 4 family dinner turns raucous for the Miller family in director Kevin Hagan's production of Eugene O'Neill's 1933 comedy "Ah, Wilderness!" for Eclipse Theatre.

    A July 4 family dinner turns raucous for the Miller family in director Kevin Hagan's production of Eugene O'Neill's 1933 comedy "Ah, Wilderness!" for Eclipse Theatre.
    courtesy of Scott Cooper

  • Brian Parry and Cheri Chenoweth play Nat and Essie Miller, Eugene O'Neill's happiest and most successful couple, in Eclipse Theatre's revival of the playwright's 1933 comedy "Ah, Wilderness!"

    Brian Parry and Cheri Chenoweth play Nat and Essie Miller, Eugene O'Neill's happiest and most successful couple, in Eclipse Theatre's revival of the playwright's 1933 comedy "Ah, Wilderness!"
    courtesy of Scott Cooper

  • Local tart Belle (Margaret Grace) entices teenage Richard (Alex Weisman), left, while a salesman (Jerry Bloom), right, looks on in Eclipse Theatre Company's revival of Eugene O'Neill's comedy "Ah, Wilderness!"

    Local tart Belle (Margaret Grace) entices teenage Richard (Alex Weisman), left, while a salesman (Jerry Bloom), right, looks on in Eclipse Theatre Company's revival of Eugene O'Neill's comedy "Ah, Wilderness!"
    courtesy of Scott Cooper

  • Video: "Ah Wilderness!"

 
 

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.

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 Khayym -- 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.

Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.