A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
Translated by Edward FitzGerald
If there’s anyone who knows about family dysfunction it’s the Irish-American playwright and former Nobel Laureate in Literature Eugene O’Neill. He’s one of those individuals who wrote beautifully but in real life was a horrible man. For instance, he disowned his only daughter Oona when she married actor/director Sir Charles Chaplin. Of course the elder O’Neill had reason to dislike his new son-in-law. The couple’s 36-year age gap between Oona and Chaplin, she was 18 and he was 54 when they married. The May/December romance resulted in a good life with their 8 children.
His play “Ah, Wilderness” is no exception. It’s light on comedy and heavy on drama. The Miller family attends the annual Fourth of July picnic New London Connecticut in 1906. The focus is on hormonal teenage son Tommy (Tate Downing). He announces to his family that “poetry is his red meat” and continues reciting lines from various poems. He argues that the 4th of July is “not meant for all people.” He is a literary slave to poetry which includes his heroes, Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw and Henrick Ibsen. His sensible parents Essie (Jodi Carlisle) and Nat (Phil Crowley) a newspaper magnate wish that Richard get serious. He is heartbroken, though he won’t admit it in public, that he misses his fiancée Lily even though he broke off the engagement. Go figure!
Richard anticipates his return to study at Yale. His sister Mildred, (Chloe Babbes) is the good one who’s a skilled pianist, does as her parents wish and studies hard. Their mother Essie runs herself ragged in running her household. There’s her brother Sid Davis (Townsend Coleman) who dips too much in the potent liquid refreshments but he is a character and a breath of fresh air in the stifled Miller family.
It’s clear that Richard is Eugene O’Neill’s later ego. A teenage boy on the verge of manhood who’s trying to figure out what he wants. It doesn’t help how his school friend Wint (Chris Speed) cajoles Richard to keep his girlfriend’s friend Belle (Catherine Urbanek) occupied at a dive bar. She resembles a broken down hooker super way down on her luck. Richard sits like a ventriloquist as his handler, Belle, pulls the strings. “You can do a lot with me for $5, but you can’t reform me,” she tells him bluntly.
The cast is absolutely wonderful. Babbes plays the idealistic daughter who minds her parents, studies hard and fondly teases Richard. She plays her vulnerable without coming across as helpless. Coleman does a wonderful “fun uncle” who acts a fool, especially when intoxicated, and the family forgives his inappropriate behavior. It’s understood, “that’s Uncle Sid.” Carlisle and Crowley are wonderful as parents. Crowley as Nat serves as the ideal father, the prototype of a Howard Cunningham from the 1970s comedy series “Happy Days”. Both are stern men who love their families and blow up when people are not doing what he believes they should. His abrasiveness is polished by Esther’s soothing calmness. They make a wonderful pair.
An excellent story portrayed by a wonderful cast directed by an exceptional Thom Babbes who made this climatic story vivid and authentic. Like every family, who doesn’t have their problems. In the end, they do support one another and do love each other, in their own special way that works.
Ah, Wilderness! plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 until Sunday, October 13 at the ACTORS CO-OP Crossley Theatre. The theater is located at 1760 N. Gower Street in Hollywood. For ticket information call (323) 462-8460 extension 300 or reserve online at www.ActorsCo-op.org.