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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
If the answer on TV's Jeopardy is "Ah, Wilderness!" then the question would be: What is Eugene O'Neill's only comedy?
If comedy and romance, basking in moonlight, are not the first things you think of when Eugene O'Neill's name comes up, this is the proof there's an exception to every rule. In this fine, indeed charming, production by the National Asian-American Theatre Company (NATCO), we get to see O'Neill's brighter side. The gloom that always lurks right around O'Neill's corners is kept at least partly at bay here.
There is much debate about the precise meaning of Ah, Wilderness! in the context of the weighty remainder of O'Neill's body of work. Since much of this and all of O'Neill's plays are autobiographical, and since many of the seeds of tragedy in A Long Day's Journey Into Night -- which NATCO will produce next, in November -- are sown in this play's supporting characters, it can also be suggested that Ah, Wilderness! represents O'Neill's fantasy of life as it might have been. Whatever the explanation, this production has a warmth and glow that we can enjoy, even if the summer moon belies the storm clouds just over the horizon.
The play focuses on the Miller family, in small town Connecticut on a July 4th early in this century. Ned Miller (Mel Gionson) owns the local newspaper. His wife Essie (Wai Ching Ho) runs their middle class household, which includes not only four children, but also his spinster sister Lily (Jo Yang) and her life-of-the-party ne'er-do-well brother Sid (Ron Nakahara). Teenage son Richard (Andrew Pang) -- almost surely representing O'Neill himself -- is the center of attention.
This can broadly be defined as a coming-of-age piece in which parents and children progress in parallel. It reminds us that it is possible to tell an upbeat story of familial love without producing something reeking of sentimentality. Discarding none of the dirty laundry, and refusing to oversimplify the feelings ordinary people (parents and children) experience as they grow, it lights the path to a life of contentment, but does not obscure the challenges inherent in staying that course. What makes this a comedy, it has been suggested, is that the unhappy, unfulfilled characters are in supporting roles, whereas in a tragedy, they are the leads.
Several elements combine to make this production particularly enjoyable and effective. Trimming O'Neill's four act tome to a well-paced three hours (with two intermissions), director Stephen Stout has given us a fine family portrait. Elly van Horne's costumes do a remarkable job of reflecting the characters and the time, thus coloring in the portrait quite well.
Set Designer Sarah Lambert's scenes in the Miller home seem a bit too "thrift-store" for this family, but are redeemed by the clever use of slides on a white curtain at the beginning of each scene. The slides show the actors on location at a nice white house in a small New England town -- exactly the house the Millers should have. In a nice touch, the curtain is dragged open and closed by the actors, wittily in keeping with each scene.
Most of all, the acting here is the driving force. The temptation to over-act in this play is great, especially for comic effect. For the most part, the actors resist the urge to overindulge. As Richard, Pang gives us the range of emotions and attitudes one expects from an adolescent philosopher/lover/son. Shifting from exuberant idealist to depressed nihilist, from lovestruck poet to jaded faux-sophisticate and from rebelious anarchist to dutiful child, playing Richard is almost like playing the wind. That Pang makes Richard believable is critical to the success of the play. He is here speaking the playwright's voice, and emoting the playwright's complicated feelings. His solo performance on the beach in the last act, uncorking the unedited thoughts inhabiting the brain of a 16 year old, is exceptional.
The role of Essie also requires an actor who can keep up with the character, and Wai Ching Ho does so very well. Much of the sweetness of this production arises from seeing Essie's motherly love manifest itself, at once strict and lenient, but always protective. Anyone who has been with a teenager's mother when her child is inexplicably late returning home at night can identify with this Mrs. Miller's barely-controlled anxiety.
Although well-paired and comfortable in scenes with Essie and Richard, Gionson's Ned falls into the trap of exaggeration on occasion, with a characterization sometimes bordering on parody. He seems ill at ease and unsure of himself in his scenes with the other adult men -- odd for a man of his position.
The harbingers of the darker life O'Neill knows and usually relates are contained in the resident in-laws. Nakahara plays Sid as a jovial but hapless drunk; Yang's Lily is equally sad in her unredeemed stoicism. Their life is the hell that comes from vicariously experiencing a life that Essie describes as "surrounded by love." Both performances are right on target.
As the audience exited the theater on West 43rd Street, I turned left to see the enormous summer full moon -- the same one the Miller's enjoyed in the final scenes of the play -- filling the Manhattan sky. Bisected by the lonely top of the Chrysler Building, it was a lovely and romantic coda to the play.
Editor's Note: This review is being posted hot on the heels of another O'Neill review, also by Les--Desire Under the Elms.