Ah Wilderness! Eugene O'Neill's rare comic take on family life at the Goodman Theatre

Ah Wilderness! Eugene O'Neill's rare comic take on family life at the Goodman Theatre
Niall Cunningham (Richard "Dick" Miller) and Ayssette Muñoz (Muriel McComber) in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, directed by Steve Scott Photo: Liz Lauren

 I love the Fourth of July.     

For me, it’s right up there with Thanksgiving. There’s no pretense, no gift giving, no blue state/red state rhetoric. We are all one– celebrating the red and blue of our flag (not of our politics).

It is not surprising that Eugene O’Neill, used Independence Day as the backdrop for Ah Wilderness!–a coming-of-age comedy set in small town Connecticut.

Although O’Neill penned the play in 1932, during the Great Depression, he purposely set the play, in 1906–an earlier period he knew well.

Born in 1888, O’Neill would have been about the same age as Richard Miller, the 16-year-old young man at the center of the story.

Known as ‘Ego’, for ‘his lack of humor concerning all things, O’Neill is better known for his serious, oftentimes tragic work including The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night.

O’Neill takes a softer, more gentle view of family in his lone successful comedy, Ah Wilderness!  

Set in Monte Cristo cottage, Connecticut, the boyhood summer home of O’Neill, the only place O’Neill ever experienced anything close to a normal family life, it has been surmised that perhaps this is the family he wished he had.

The story unfolds through the lens of two generations of the Miller family: The dad newspaper publisher Nat Miller (Randall Newsome) smart, family man and kind soul and the mom Essie (Ora Jones), humorous but strict, a perfect fit for the role.

Randall Newsome (Nat Miller), Matthew Abraham (Tommy Miller) and Ora Jones (Essie Miller) in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, directed by Steve Scott at Goodman Theatre (June 17 – July 23) Photo: Liz Lauren

Randall Newsome (Nat Miller), Matthew Abraham (Tommy Miller) and Ora Jones (Essie Miller) in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, directed by Steve Scott at Goodman Theatre (June 17 – July 23) Photo: Liz Lauren

The younger generation  consists of four children: oldest son, Arthur (Travis A. Knight) a Yalie home on summer break, confident and fun loving, Richard (Niall Cunningham), the more serious younger brother who will soon be heading to Yale, but is currently experiencing the passions of first love and obsessed with the power of literature; little sister Mildred (Rochelle Therrien) is boy crazy and a tease and little brother Tommy (Matthew Abraham), is still a child.

Adding another dimension to the story is Nat’s sister Lily (Kate Fry)–a forty something unmarried school teacher–not a huge role but played to perfection by Fry; then there’s Essie’s  drinking, gambling and fun-loving brother, journalist Sid Davis (Larry Bates) who has a thing for Lily but will not give up his philandering as Lily demands if he is to marry her.

Others in the cast include Ricardo Gutierrez (as Muriel’s dad who is determined to end the relationship between his daughter and Richard); Will Allan (a friend of Arthur’s who takes the innocent Richard under his wing introducing him to lady of the night, Belle (Amanda Drinkall) who opens Richard’s eyes to the seamy side of life;  Bri Sudia is the Millers’ likeable Irish maid; Joe Dempsey is the bartender and Bret Tuomi is a salesman.

Niall Cunningham (Richard Miller), Joe Dempsey (Bartender), Amanda Drinkall (Belle) and Bret Tuomi (Salesman) in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, directed by Steve Scott at Goodman Theatre (June 17 – July 23) Photo: Liz Lauren

Niall Cunningham (Richard Miller), Joe Dempsey (Bartender), Amanda Drinkall (Belle) and Bret Tuomi (Salesman) in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, directed by Steve Scott at Goodman Theatre (June 17 – July 23) Photo: Liz Lauren

It was a very different time in America–no television, no iphones or internet–yet the power of the play lays in the universal milestones of one’s life whether it’s 1906 or 2017–defining oneself as an adult.

Richard, whose passion for poetry is rivaled only by affection for Muriel (Ayssette Muñoz), the girl of his dreams, struggles to find and define himself with the love and watchful eye of his loving family close by.

Many events transpire in the one-day, the Fourth of July, that the play unfolds with Richard learning a lot about life, love and family.

In many ways coming-of-age in 1906, is not so different than coming-of-age in 2017. Except now we have an even greater opportunity for independence and becoming who we really are.

For a totally different slant on family life, check out Show Me Chicago’s review of Taylor Mac‘s Hir (now playing at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre) –coming later this week.

Rating: Three out of four stars

When: Through July 23

Where: Goodman Theater, 170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $20 – $75 at box office or online 

Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes including intermission

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