If you were to ask Goodman Theatre artistic director and longtime Eugene O'Neill admirer Robert Falls the best time to revive an O'Neill play, he would likely answer: any time.
But this week preceding Independence Day is especially appropriate for the opening of Goodman's warmhearted revival of "Ah, Wilderness!" A sweet tale about a teenage boy whose budding romance is threatened first by his beloved's disapproving father and then by his own mini-rebellion, O'Neill's only comedy unfolds in a Connecticut seaport city on July 4, 1906.
"Ah, Wilderness!"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday through July 23. Also 7:30 p.m. July 11. No 2 p.m. show July 1 and 20. No 7:30 p.m. show July 16 and 23.
Running time: About 2 hours, 25 minutes with intermission
Parking: $22 with Goodman validation at the Government Self Park at Lake and Clark streets
Rating: Suitable for most audiences
But "Ah, Wilderness!" is more than a turn-of-the-last-century, coming-of-age tale. It's also a love story -- actually love stories. There's teenage love steeped in passion and melodrama. There's the sweetly bitter romance of a middle-aged man and woman whose window of matrimonial opportunity closed years earlier, but whose affection for each other remains. And there's the enduring love of a long-married couple doing their best to nurture their children and prepare them for life outside the family's nest.
And what an airy, upper-middle-class nest it is with its large windows, gingerbread trim and a dining room table that expands to accommodate all comers. Set slightly askew against an impressionistic, watercolor backdrop, Todd Rosenthal's set recalls a diorama of the ideal family's idyllic home, a far cry from the dysfunctional household, fueled by substance abuse, where O'Neill grew up.
The production marks the last for director and longtime producer Steve Scott as a full-time member of Goodman's artistic collective. He retires Aug. 31 after more than 30 years with the theater.
What an exit.
Scott's production is a breath of fresh air. Compassionate, funny and well-acted, its strength rests in its details, the seemingly incidental moments -- a quick glance between characters or a perfectly timed eye-roll -- that illustrate the love these family members share. "Ah, Wilderness!" is O'Neill at his kindest as evidenced by the gentle teasing between siblings, the genial battle of wills between a mother and the young child she's ordered to bed and the awkward heart-to-heart about booze, women and sex a father has with his 17-year-old son.
Niall Cunningham (from CBS' "Life in Pieces") plays that son with effortless affability. Richard is a bright, earnest, newly minted rebel who's fallen in love for the first time with teenage Muriel (Ayssette Munoz). Her father (Ricardo Gutierrez) opposes their romance and forces her to end the relationship.
The brokenhearted Richard finds himself at a local watering hole in the company of a prostitute named Belle. She's played by the terrific Amanda Drinkall, whose voice recalls Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont from 1952's "Singin' in the Rain" and whose performance reflects the desperation that characterizes so many O'Neill characters. The storm cloud in this otherwise sunny play, their beautifully acted scene -- featuring Joe Dempsey's taciturn bartender and Bret Tuomi's oily salesman -- depicts the despair and loneliness underscoring O'Neill's work.
The ideally cast, easily affectionate Randall Newsome and Ora Jones balance indulgence and concern as Nat and Essie Miller, Richard's forward-thinking parents who are confident enough in their children's judgment to let them learn from their mistakes.
Goodman newcomer Larry Bates plays Sid -- Essie's likable brother and a most congenial drunk -- whose alcohol dependence prevents him from reconciling with onetime fiance and true love Lily (Kate Fry), Nat's schoolteacher sister. As much as Lily loves him, she cannot abide Sid's drinking, leaving the couple eternally linked yet forever apart.
Fry conveys with her downcast eyes and pressed lips more meaning than some actors do with lengthy monologues, and she delivers a performance masterful for its subtlety. The embodiment of Tennessee Williams' "little birdlike women without any nest," Lily often sits to the side, a part of the family yet still apart.
For an O'Neill character, it's not a bad place. She's surrounded by genuine love and affection -- absent in many of O'Neill's plays -- but abundant in this appealing "Wilderness."