Theater: Portrait of Americana

A.C.T.’s ‘Ah, Wilderness!’ portrays idealized childhood

by Charles Brousse

For months we’ve been hearing about the American Conservatory Theater’s new second venue, the “state-of-the-art” renovated Strand Theater—how “cool” it is and how its arrival will help rejuvenate a rundown section of San Francisco’s central boulevard. Since the company’s longtime home on Geary Street is anything but cool, some were beginning to wonder whether the powers that be were getting ready to assign the old lady to a nursing home … or worse.

Not to worry. A.C.T. is currently filling the Geary stage with an absolutely lovely revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! that simultaneously re-establishes the group’s roots as a major guardian of the American theatrical tradition, showcases its importance as one of the country’s primary trainers of emerging talent and reminds us that the grand old building isn’t going anywhere soon.

Although overshadowed by darker, more anguished works like Long Day’s Journey into Night, Moon for the Misbegotten and The Iceman Cometh that are connected with his unhappy formative years, Ah, Wilderness!, O’Neill’s only comedy, with content he’s described as “the way I would have liked my boyhood to have been,” was once a popular favorite that was regularly performed at professional and semi-professional theaters around the country. Today, the resources required by its 15-member cast, combined with changes in public taste, have substantially reduced the number of productions.

The action takes place July 4-5, 1906, in and near the town of Waterbury, Connecticut. Nat (Anthony Fusco) and Essie Miller (Rachel Ticotin) are happily married upper-middle-class folk who, as was the custom in those times, share their spacious house with their four children, several extended family members and a kitchen maid. While each has a part to play in the house’s ever-changing communal life, there are two main centers of interest. One is teenage Richard Miller (Thomas Stagnitta), who is fond of showing off by quoting famous authors whose works he has devoured, but who suddenly finds himself facing the vexing realities (moral, sexual and otherwise) of approaching manhood. The other is Uncle Sid, Essie’s brother (Dan Hiatt),  whose cheerful wisecracking hides deep shame about an alcohol dependency that prevents him from marrying his longtime fiancé, Lily Miller, Nat’s sister (Margo Hall), who also has a room in the house. I know—it sounds a bit incestuous—but O’Neill’s skill at character building and dialogue coax the comedy along to a soul-satisfying conclusion.

With its strong cast directed by Casey Stangl (who filled in after Mark Rucker’s untimely death last August) and inventive design choices that include an elegant set by Ralph Funicello that consists of sparsely furnished playing areas separated by translucent sheets of scrim that emphasize the play’s fantasy origins, this A.C.T. production reinvigorates what is truly a classic script. Detractors may question whether mixing proven veteran actors with up-and-coming students from A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory is a good plan, and it has to be admitted that while having accomplished pros in most of the leading roles lifts the overall quality, it also exposes the lack of experience in some of the younger actors. Yet, the latter provide a freshness that might otherwise be lacking, and their working relationship will no doubt yield beneficial effects as the run moves along.

As for the complaint that Ah, Wilderness! is the theatrical equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting, all I can say is if O’Neill’s portrait of Americana, circa 1906, seems too emotionally warm and fuzzy, one should remember that it’s an idealized concept of a childhood that O’Neill (like most of us) never had, but frequently wish might have been. Suspension of disbelief could not be more pleasant.

NOW PLAYING: Ah, Wilderness! runs through November 8 at The Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco; 415/749-2228; act-sf.org.

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