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The Ensemble in Ah, Wilderness at A Noise Within (Photo by Craig Schwartz)
The Ensemble in Ah, Wilderness at A Noise Within (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

Ah, Wilderness!

Reviewed by Dana Martin
A Noise Within
Through May 20th

Eugene O’Neill’s singular and hastily written comedy, Ah, Wilderness! narrows its focus on the idealized boyhood O’Neill longed for yet never lived. The play encapsulates youthful devotion and often feels sentimental and plain, atypical of O’Neill’s cannon; it’s aptly subtitled “A nostalgic comedy of the Ancient Days when Youth was Young, the Right was Right and life was a wicked opportunity.” The night I attended, the audience seemed to collectively sigh, “these were the good ol’ days.”

Set in 1906, the play opens with Fourth of July fireworks surrounding Nat and Essie Miller’s small-town Connecticut home, then follows their son, 17-year-old aspiring poet and hopeless romantic Richard “Dick” Miller (played by a considerably more mature Matt Gall). Essie has discovered salacious books  —Wilde, Ibsen, Swinburne — in Dick’s room, and demands punishment. When a rejection letter arrives from his girlfriend Muriel (Emily Goss), down-trodden Dick is roped into an evening out with a Yale buddy, Wilt Selby (Conor Sheehan). Dick gets more than he bargains for, of course, returning home drunk, disorderly and miserable. Ultimately, Dick uses his experience to assert his independence and, as luck would have it, reconcile with Muriel.

Matt Gall struggles to access the vibrancy of Dick Miller’s youthful innocence. He works hard, but it often feels like he’s commenting on the character rather than living in his skin. His portrayal is almost a caricature. Nicholas Hormann delivers a steady performance as family patriarch and low-key liberal Nat Miller, and Deborah Strang finds a well-rounded and lovable Essie. Alan Blumenfeld is delightfully pathetic as family drunk Sid Davis, while Kitty Swink draws out a melancholy sense of hope as the sweet spinster Lily Miller.

This production is punctuated by musical interludes that reek of American nostalgia. Director Steven Robman stages much of the play’s action around a piano and within a picture frame. The pacing felt rushed at times, with the actors stumbling on their lines and the music slightly out of sync. Costumes by Garry D. Lennon were detailed and dreamy. Tom Ontiveros’ lighting design creates an appropriate sense of heat and warmth.

Ah, Wilderness! leaves us with an idealized, romanticized portrait of the past. The question I’m left with after this production is: Why do we continue to look back?

A Noise Within, 3352 Foothill Blvd. Pasadena; now playing in rep, contact theatre for performance schedule; through May 20th. (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org. Running time: two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

                    

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