Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! is a color positive, a Kodak slide, the polar opposite of the black and white negative that is A Long Day’s Journey into Night. The comparison is inevitable, de rigueur even. The bleak tragedy of A Long Day’s Journey was produced posthumously in the 1950s, whereas Ah, Wilderness! was written in a burst of inspiration in less than a month in the early 1930s. It was an enormous hit that went on tour and was picked up for the movies, twice. It has been revived many times to great acclaim. To that string of perennial success, add A Noise Within’s sterling production.
Set in the Connecticut home of the Millers, a prosperous upper-middle class family, on July Fourth in the year 1906, Ah, Wilderness! is a domestic comedy featuring a beguiling cast of characters, each with his or her dreams and longings. The through line belongs to Richard (Matt Gall), who is on the cusp of seventeen. He is a youth besotted with poetry, smitten by socialism and gob-smacked over a girl named Muriel (Emily Goss). He aches, smolders, and argues with his parents as he tries to figure it all out. He has an older brother, Art (Ian Littleworth), a Yale man, a footballer, and the possessor of a singing voice of pure gold. Richard also has younger siblings— Mildred (Katie Hume), a feisty tease of fifteen, and eleven year-old Tommy (Samuel Genghis Christian).
Father Nat (Nicholas Hormann) runs a newspaper and mother Essie (Deborah Strang) frets and stews over Richard’s adolescent angst as she rules the domestic scene assisted by the Irish maid, Nora (Kelsey Carthew), and Nat’s spinster sister, Lily (Kitty Swink), a school teacher. It wouldn’t be drama without conflict and some darkness is provided by Essie’s brother, Sid (Alan Blumenfeld), a bright, jovial man cursed with an appetite for drink and an abiding longing for Lily, who spurns him because of weakness. There is also Muriel’s father, David McComber (Marcelo Tubert), who throws a monkey wrench into the inexorable engine of young love.
Richard is doomed to go astray before righting himself as comedy demands. Lured into adventure by Art’s classmate, Wint Selby (Conor Sheehan), he gets more than he bargained for in an encounter with a woman named Belle (Emily Kosloski) and a traveling salesman (Matt Henerson).
Ah, Wilderness! is a deliciously complex play with emotional threads that threaten to fray as they weave in and out binding the characters ever more tightly by final curtain. This production is also a stealth musical. True, O’Neill specifies some music, and this cast delivers excellent renditions not only of what the script calls for, but also period songs performed between each scene and act; especially delightful, a fine, heartfelt performance of “The Whiffen Poof Song.”
The handsomely mounted production boasts an evocative scenic design by Frederica Nascimento, lit by Tom Ontiveros. Costumes by Garry D. Lennon are perfect for both period and character. Cricket S. Myers’ sound design is exemplary, as is the musical direction by Jonathan Tessero.
With a superb ensemble cast under the savvy direction of Steven Robman, Ah, Wilderness! is a triumph. The show runs in rotating rep with Man of La Mancha and King Lear through May 21 at A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd, in Pasadena.