Set around the turn of the last century in New London, Connecticut - where young Eugene had summered - O’Neill’s 1933 Ah, Wilderness! is a marked departure from his usually gloomy plays, fraught with familial Sturm und Drang. Indeed, with their happy if imperfect lives, this comedy’s Millers are the polar opposites of those long suffering characters in his angsty final dramas, such as The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten. Indeed, one could say that the Millers are the family O’Neill wished he had grown up in, rather than the tense, dysfunctional, substance-abusing unit he had the misbegotten misfortune to have been born into.
Nonetheless, a shrewd Sherlockian observer can sleuth out some of Eugene O’Neill’s recurring themes in A Noise Within’s production: Addiction to the demon rum and related consequences; sexual repression; a young man’s striving for independence. The latter is emphasized by setting the action on and about the Fourth of July, aka “Independence Day.” But this also goes to O’Neill’s politics: Teenager Richard Miller (Matt Gall), who pursues Muriel McComber (Emily Goss), reads and quotes books by radicals such as free love espouser Emma Goldman and advocates various leftist ideas.
As a Greenwich Village habitué and one of the Provincetown Players, O’Neill hobnobbed with leading leftwing intellectuals, notably John Reed, who went on to write Ten Days That Shook the World, that classic chronicle of the Russian Revolution. (Their friendship is memorably recounted in Warren Beatty’s stellar 1981 Reed biopic Reds.) O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, which originated with the Provincetown Players in 1922 before it was produced on Broadway, could be read as a dramatization of Karl Marx’s theory of the alienation of labor. (See my comparison of The Hairy Ape’s depiction of the estrangement of workers to 1936’s Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin - who would marry O’Neill’s daughter, Oona - at: https://thisstage.la/2016/06/pro-worker-parallels-between-oona-oneills-playwright-father-and-filmmaker-husband/.)
Although O’Neill could render Marxist theory onstage my sense is that unlike Reed and Louise Bryant, he really didn’t buy into socialism. Unlike Richard Miller, who does believe in romanticized radical ideals, O’Neill was probably too cynical about human nature (or what passes for it under the degradation of capitalism). After all, unlike his character Richard, young Eugene had, by all accounts, a troubled if not outright miserable childhood that shaped his more misanthropic view of we mere mortals.
Steven Robman skillfully directs the Wilderness! ensemble. Scenic designer Frederica Nascimento’s sets are simple in comparison to those of other ANW productions, such as the elaborate home, et al, in last year’s adaptation of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Garry Lennon’s costuming, on the other hand, does impart a sense of fashions as worn in New England, circa 1906.
Standouts in the cast of about 15 players include Nicholas Hormann (a veteran of Broadway, Off-Broadway and the screen) as Nat Miller, the family patriarch who publishes the local newspaper. It’s refreshing to see a principled publisher standing up for freedom of speech and against external pressures in this day and age, as we suffer under a wannabe dick-tatorial president (alas, his bone spurs have prevented him from being an actual strongman), who condemns “fake news,” even as he willy-nilly pulls items out of his ass, calling them “facts” -although they’re really just hemorrhoids. Hormann’s performance as a loving father is full of nuances, as he resists condemning his son for Richard’s incipient radicalism and suspected saloon and sexual peccadilloes. One gets a sense that this may be the father O’Neill wished he had - but didn’t, so he conjured him up as Nat. (I suspect that Nat and Richard are actually form a composite of O’Neill.)
As the presumably Irish Mildred, Katie Hume is droll as a servant from O’Neill’s old country. Emily Kosloski, who’d co-starred in ANW’s production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, tarts it up again as a bargirl who tempts the virginal Richard. As Nat’s wife Essie, the Millers’ matriarch, Deborah Strang (who has racked up considerable stage and screen credits), reminded me of the latter day Lillian Gish, as she appeared in films such as 1967’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Comedians. Nat and Essie’s enduring, longtime love is one of the play’s takes on relationships at various stages of development (or not) that includes the tender teenaged lunacy of Richard and Muriel.
As Lily Miller, Kitty Swink (who acted in one of those endless Star Trek derivatives) plays the Millers’ millstone, that “old maid” aunt who never got married and hence, taken off the hands of the family. (January 17’s Ovation Awards ceremony at the Ahmanson Theatre was full of anti-Trump invective and during presenters’ banter, Kitty punned on her feline-sounding name. Referring to Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape, Swink - who’d appeared in 1988’s Patty Hearst - quipped: “Let’s just say this ‘kitty’ grabs back.”)
Lily’s on again, off again (not to say in again, out again) relationship (or lack of) with Sid Davis is one of Wilderness’! major subplots. She won’t wed Sid because he imbibes - but maybe Sid hits the bottle because his love and passion for Lily is unrequited? Which could also explain his presumed dabbling with ladies of the night? In any case, as this struggling newspaperman, the redoubtable Alan Blumenfeld steals the show. Blumenfeld is the L.A. theater scene’s actor’s actor, a playhouse perennial who venerably treads the boards, inexhaustibly bringing to life characters created by William Shakespeare, Clifford Odets, Neil Simon, Moliere and many more.
Blumenfeld’s versatile acting is so seamless that this reviewer has failed sometimes to single him out from the pack because he’s so integrally woven into a production’s tapestry. But this is not really a matter of taking his talent for granted, but rather a sense that, like that indispensable family member who will always be there for you, Alan has a stage presence one can always count on.
However, this time, as the best thing in ANW’s Wilderness! it is really impossible not to single this thespian out for the praise he so richly deserves. Whether sober or in his cups, Blumenfeld’s Sid is a delight to behold. He even gets a chance to let loose with song and dance, revealing and releasing his inner vaudevillian (Alan has also appeared on the big and little screens in 300 parts). Wilderness! is a veritable showcase of his diverse talents, ranging from the comedic to the tragic. Were it not for the sheer joy and exuberance, as well as poignancy of his performance as an older gentlemen wooing the demurring object of his desire, ANW’s production may have been little more than an old fashioned, outdated period piece. (Look for Blumenfeld to kick off Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s summer repertory season on June 3 as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at that glorious Topanga Canyon outpost of the Bard and more. I’ve already reserved my tree stump.)
Last December, I had the splendid opportunity to interview Eugene Chaplin, the son of Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neill, who - alas - never had the chance to meet the playwriting grandfather he was named after. Eugene Chaplin did not come across as troubled the way his namesake seemed to be - he was jaunty, although one sensed that he had a stiff spine, as the first of the Chaplins’ offspring born in Swiss exile after Charlie was unceremoniously kicked out of his adopted homeland for the heinous crime of being a “premature antifascist.”
O’Neill derived the title of Ah, Wilderness! from the 1120 poem Rubáiyát by Omar Khayyám. Given the Trump regime’s efforts to ban travel by Iranians, we should be grateful that ANW’s production, wherein that troublemaker Richard quotes from the Persian poet’s Rubaiyat, was not censored and prohibited from appearing on this Pasadena stage. One can only wonder what grist these bans would have made for the peerless pen of Eugene O’Neill (or of his pal, John Reed) - who so caustically assailed July 4th as a reflection of that bewildering wilderness that is America?
A Noise Within’s Ah, Wilderness! plays through May 20 in repertory with Shakespeare’s King Lear and Man of La Mancha as part of ANW’s “Beyond Our Wildest Dreams” season celebrating the company’s 25th anniversary at: A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107. For exact times, dates and more info: (636)356-3100, ext. 1; www.anoisewithin.org. Free parking in an adjacent garage.
Film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Sergei Eisenstein’s revolutionary classic Battleship Potemkin on Friday, 7:30 p.m., March 24, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. For info: firstname.lastname@example.org.