A quarter century before Eugene O’Neill’s deep dark look at a fictionalized version of his drug-and-alcohol-addicted family, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, first opened on Broadway, the soon-to-be Nobel laureate treated 1933 New York theatergoers to an idealized vision of that same family in his one-and-only comedy Ah, Wilderness!
Now, a year after its multiple-Scenie-winning revival of Long Day’s Journey, Actors Co-op introduces its audiences to the Millers (a lighter, brighter version of the O’Neills/Jeromes), and what a delightful, beautifully staged and acted production the Co-op has come up with.
Scenie-winner Nicholas Podany is sixteen-year-old Richard Miller, the second of Nat and Essie Miller’s four offspring, who undergoes considerable coming-of-age between the morning of July 4, 1906 and the evening of the 5th, an Independence Day weekend during which Richard both asserts his own independence and learns to appreciate the importance of family in a teenager’s life.
We first see Richard as a self-described “radical” with an affection for the works of Shaw, Swinburne, and Ibsen, something his old-fashioned mother Essie (Jodi Carlisle) deems cause for alarm, though his more progressive father Nat (Phil Crowley) takes his Richard’s side, explaining to the missus that “there’s fine things … true things” in his son’s favorite books.
Before long, Richard finds his budding relationship with girl-next-door Muriel McComber (Melody Hollis) threatened by her overbearing, over-protective father David (Dimitri Christy), who accuses Richard of trying to “corrupt the morals” of his daughter and gives the lad a letter from Muriel in which she vows never to see him again.
It’s no wonder, then, that a devastated Richard proves more than willing to join his older brother’s friend Wint (Chris Speed) for an evening of drinking and loose women, and before you can say “Give me a whisky and make it snappy,” finds himself drinking sloe gin fizzes with Belle (Catherine Urbanek), a fledgling hooker with a heart not quite of gold, as he laments the fickleness of women like Muriel who can break a boy’s and apparently not lose a moment’s sleep over it.
Fortunately, all is not as grim as Richard has imagined it, and by the time he heads off for bed on the Fifth Of July, our young hero is no longer the same callow youth we first met just a day and a half before.
Along the way, we’ve also gotten to know various members of Richard’s immediate and extended family—his charming but alcohol-dependent paternal uncle Sid (Townsend Coleman); his maternal aunt Lily (Carrie Madsen), once engaged to Sid and now resigned to a life of spinsterhood; his nineteen-year-old older brother Arthur (Patrick Lawrie), a Yale “college man” entirely too full of himself; his fifteen-year-old sister Mildred (Chloe Babbes), who likes nothing more than to tease her brothers about their love lives; and Tommy (Tate Downing), at eleven the family’s high-spirited youngest member.
Despite some teenage drinking and very minor hanky-panky with a woman of ill repute, Ah, Wilderness! is at its raciest PG entertainment for all but the youngest children. And though contemporary teens may find it hard to relate to teenage mores of a century ago, when no “good boy” or “good girl” would even think of going further than a kiss with a member of the opposite sex, what stands out most about O’Neill’s single foray into comedic territory is just how fresh and timeless it still feels, that and dialog that is somehow more natural than in O’Neill’s more frequently performed dramatic works.
Under Thomas Babbes’ assured direction, the entire cast deliver pitch-perfect performances, and if it seemed on several occasions that one actor or another had “gone up” on his or her lines (a rarity in L.A. theater), these momentary memory lapses were quickly saved at no expense to the production.
There aren’t two better character actors than Crowley and Carlisle, a pair of quirky delights as Richard’s model parents (the ones Eugene O’Neill wished he had had), and supporting turns by Babbes, Downing, Madsen, and Lawrie are finely tuned Miller family gems. Coleman is particularly effective at creating a three-dimensional, non-stereotypical drunk, while Danny Araujo (Salesman), Christy, Michael Onofri (Bartender), Speed, and Maurie Speed (Nora) lend topnotch support.
As the two women in Richard’s “love life,” Hollis and Urbanek have only one scene each, but both are thoroughly marvelous, the former the picture of pink-and-white perfection as “good girl” Muriel, the latter bold and brassy as peroxide-blonde “bad girl” Belle.
Ultimately, though, there could be no Ah, Wilderness! without a stellar leading man, and as Richard, real-life high schooler Podany tops even his Scenie-winning Best Lead Actor performance in last year’s Hermetically Sealed, giving the kind of multi-layered, utterly real performance you’d normally expect from an actor twice his age. Podany makes us believe in each of the many changes Richard undergoes over a mere thirty-six hours, and in the bargain earns our love and admiration for character and actor alike.
Mark Henderson and Tim Farmer’s revolving set (for SETS TO GO) is one of the best I’ve ever seen in Actors Co-op’s Crossley Theatre, morphing from a finely detailed Miller family home (kudos to properties designer Nicholas Acciani) to a seedy bar to a moonlit beach and back, and Shon LeBlanc has designed one exquisite period costume after another, all of the above exquisitely lit by Bill E. Kickbush. Cameron Combe’s sound design is first-rate as well, and so too are Krys Fehervari’s hair designs, though Essie’s, Lily’s, and Belle’s wigs are so over-the-top as to prove distracting.
Ah, Wilderness! is produced for Actors Co-op by Selah Victor and dedicated to the memory of Henry Polic II. Rita Cofield is stage manager and Austen Duke Tanner assistant stage manager. Rory Patterson is production manager.
Actors Co-op has dubbed its 22nd Anniversary Season “Stories of the Soul … from the Heart,” and if ever there were a Eugene O’Neill play with heart and soul in abundance, it is Ah, Wilderness!, a Co-op revival that delights and entertains even as it touches both the heart and the soul.
Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood.
September 13, 2013
Photos: Lindsay Schnebly