Entertainment » Theatre

Ah, Wilderness!

by Elaine Beale
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Oct 26, 2015
Sid Davis (played by Dan Hiatt, second from right) regales the Miller family with gags
Sid Davis (played by Dan Hiatt, second from right) regales the Miller family with gags  

Sometimes the lesser works of great artists are best forgotten, or at least left to rest in the musty past where they belong. Thus, while Eugene O'Neill is rightly recognized for his groundbreaking genius in plays like "Long Day's Journey into Night" and "The Iceman Cometh," his 1993 comedy, "Ah, Wilderness!" is a classic example of a drama that might have been wildly popular when it first came to the stage but has failed to stand the test of time.

Given this, it's a bit of a mystery why San Francisco's ACT decided to revive this particular play for their current season. ACT Artistic Director justifies the choice for the opportunities it provides for the young trainees in ACT's Masters of Fine Arts program. Unfortunately, these youthful actors don't have anywhere near the chops to make this sappy and painfully sexist work anything more than a long and entirely forgettable foray into an idealized and thankfully distant past.

Set in a small east coast town in the early 20th century on July 4th, the story is of a young man, Richard Miller, who's soon headed for Yale, but fancies himself a bit of a rebel. He's been banned from seeing his sweetheart Muriel by her father who disapproves of the unsavory poetry Richard has been sharing with her.

After he receives a letter from Muriel affirming that she doesn't want to see him again, Richard heads off to a local dive bar. There, he's exposed to strong booze and the ugly manipulations of one of the town's "harlots" and other members of the distasteful local underclass.

His doting and ditzy mother is horrified. Dad, naturally, understands his son's carnal instincts and, although he's concerned, mostly takes it in his stride. Of course, being a "good boy" who's really only interested in "decent" girls like Muriel, Richard redeems quickly himself and all's put right in the end.

Along the way, this ACT production veers all over the place. The miasmic set (by Ralph Funicello) creates a vivid sense of the fog of nostalgia, but the choice to stage a family dinner scene around a tightly-packed table makes the actions and expressions of most of the actors invisible to the audience as well as difficult to hear. Similarly, while as Nat Miller, Anthony Fusco lacks the presence needed to nail the part of Richard's father, as Richard himself, Thomas Stagnitta is hammily over the top when a more nuanced delivery would have made his character far more convincing and the dated wit a little easier to bear.

The majority of the play is set in the Miller home where family friend Sid Davis (Dan Hiatt) and Richard's Aunt Lily (Margo Hall) are visiting for the holiday. Lily's aching disappointment in Sid is evoked well by Hall and her presence on the stage is always an anchor. Playing Sid, a hopeless but humorous lush, Hiatt offers skilled moments of hilarity but sometimes his delivery just seems off.

As Richard's mother, Essie, Rachel Ticotin is nothing but consistent and her dialogues with her sister Lily are among the production's best moments. However, the most vivid scene takes place in the bar that Richard visits, with both Caitlan Taylor (as Belle) and Matthew Baldiga (as Salesman) offering up the most memorable and engaging performances in the entire play.

One might applaud ACT for its innovation in utilizing a multi-racial cast. However, while it's always refreshing to see actors of color on the stage of any well-supported theater, when it's done in a play set in such a white bread milieu as "Ah, Wilderness!" it strikes something of a false note. One has to wonder why ACT didn't chose a drama that not only includes actors of color, but also speaks to the experiences of the Bay Area's diverse residents, rather than rehashing a play that offers nothing more than a romanticized version of a white, misogynist, upper class past.

"Ah, Wilderness!" plays through Nov. 8 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For information or tickets, call 415-749-2228 or visit the theater's website

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