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THEATER REVIEW: “Ah, Wilderness!” is a bittersweet coming-of-age tale

Playwright Eugene O’Neill is best known for dark autobiographical family sagas like “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “Moon For The Misbegotten.” But he also wrote one comedy: “Ah, Wilderness!”

The bittersweet coming-of-age tale was described by the playwright as “nostalgia for a youth I never had.”

New Village Arts Theatre launches its Ensemble Project with this piece, set in a small Connecticut town on July 4, 1906. Amanda Sitton, better known as a versatile actor, takes the helm for this show, which runs through Aug. 28.

The Millers are a stereotypical turn-of-the-20th-century family demonstrating rather more cohesion than is common today. Parents Nat (Manny Fernandes) and Essie (Kristianne Kurner) and their four children – Arthur (John DeCarlo), Richard (Kyle Lucy), Mildred (Roma Watkins) and Tommy (Jonah Gercke) – are preparing for a quiet Fourth when neighbor Dave McComber (Jack Missett) charges in, waving a piece of paper and accusing 17-year-old Richard of corrupting the morals of his 15-year-old daughter Muriel (Kelly Iversen).

Richard’s sweet on the girl, you see, and has been reading the likes of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw and sending her poetry by that lascivious Swinburne and – even worse – Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the scandalous “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.”

McComber has grounded Muriel for the foreseeable future and demands harsh punishment for Richard. Before sentence is passed, Richard makes a rebellious foray to a downtown bar with his brother’s college friend Wint (Adam Brick), where he meets local hooker Belle (Kelly Iversen).

Other family members on hand for the holiday are Nat’s sister Lily (Dana Case), the old maid schoolteacher, and Essie’s brother, the lovable drunk Sid Davis (Daren Scott). Lily has been in love with Sid for a long time, but his fondness for alcohol and associations with loose women prevent her from accepting his frequent marriage proposals.

“Ah, Wilderness!” seems a curious choice for this company. This is lesser O’Neill, neither especially funny nor particularly riveting – a break from what we have come to expect from Kurner and company.

It’s a tame, even dated play describing, as O’Neill puts it, “the way I would have liked my childhood to have been.” That makes directing it a bit tricky: How do you make it compelling for today’s playgoers?

Sitton opts for anachronistic props and some out-of-period clothing – Corelle dinnerware, for example, and the men’s pants – and for inserting visual interest in the form of dance-like set changes.

Scott is gloriously, outrageously in charge of the comic relief. He absolutely shines in Sid’s drunk scenes, getting a good deal more out of them than is on the page.

Case, on the other hand, is stuck with the thankless dried-up-schoolteacher part, and seems as miscast as the role is annoying.
Fernandes and Kurner are convincing as the Miller parents, while Lucy carries the ball without evident difficulty as the rebellious but good kid whose reading choices make him the object of suspicion to some of the neighbors.

DeCarlo is fine as college student Arthur, Gercke adorable as 11-year-old Tommy. Watkins’ Mildred is a good little actress but could use better diction.

Kudos to Iversen, who plays three very different roles with great panache – Richard’s 15-year-old girlfriend Muriel, the hooker Belle and Norah, the Millers’ nearly blind maid.

The remainder of the plays this season will feature these same actors, culminating in a new piece being written especially for them.

The details

“Ah, Wilderness!” plays through Aug. 28 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State St., Carlsbad.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinees Saturday at 3 pm and Sunday at 2 pm.

For tickets call (760) 433-3245 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.