“Then, from all reports, we seem to be completely surrounded by love.”
—Nat Miller in Ah, Wilderness!
There’s a something old and sweet about preparing a dining-room table for a big holiday dinner. I mean the literal act of pulling the two halves of the table apart and dropping leaves into the gap between them so you can fit more people in. It suggests sharing and abundance, family and friends, refuge and welcome, sentiment and celebration—a little American dream, played out in varnished maple. Before grandma could serve the turkey in that famous Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting, somebody had to add the extra planks and drape them with the good lace cloth.
Director Steve Scott gives us a chance to contemplate the aesthetics of the well-dressed table during a transitional passage in his charming if never quite riveting version of Ah, Wilderness!, an early Eugene O’Neill romantic comedy, running now at Goodman Theatre. It’s Independence Day, 1906, at the comfortable Miller family manse, in a “large small-town” on the Connecticut shore. Papa Nat is taking the day off from the local newspaper he owns. Mama Essie upholds domestic standards, gently, her firm first judgments always seeming to soften up in negotiation. The four children are home, from Arthur the pipe-puffing Yale man down to Tommy the 11-year-old afterthought. They’re joined by Nat’s spinster sister Lily and Essie’s bachelor brother Sid, who were engaged once but broke up over Sid’s drinking. Some small traumas will occur in the course of the day, and slightly larger ones will arrive overnight, practically all of them having to do with teenage second son Richard having discovered Ibsen, Marx, Swinburne, and love in a single adolescent whoosh. For a couple minutes, though, we get to watch Essie and the family’s Irish maid, Norah, open up that table and make a place for everyone.
The moment unfolds behind a translucent white scrim that descends at other times as well, to remind us that we’re looking through a gentle mental mist at a world governed by the physics of nostalgia, already a quarter century (and a world war and an economic collapse) away by the time Ah, Wilderness! premiered in 1933. This is not O’Neill the tortured memoirist of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1956)—Nat Miller isn’t a miserly hack and Essie doesn’t take morphine. Far from it. Over at Steppenwolf Theatre, where Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over excavates the race-enforced misery of young, urban black men, a series of popping sounds indicates gunfire. Here, it’s just Tommy’s firecrackers.
Our main concern is Richard’s coming of age, neatly and safely accomplished in about 24 hours. Given a droll spin by Niall Cunningham, Dick is a curly-haired, beanpole-thin know-it-all when we first meet him, spouting opinions on Wilde and Shaw while declaring his epic love for Muriel, daughter of a cranky merchant named McComber—who arrives before long with the soul-baring if pedantic letters Dick’s been writing to Muriel in secret. (For a sense of how badly this kind of thing might go outside Connecticut, see Spring Awakening.) Dick is defiant about the letters but goes into a tailspin when he finds out that Muriel’s broken off their relationship. His dark night of the soul takes him to the Pleasant Beach House, a bar and brothel, where his visit with Amanda Drinkall‘s marvelous Belle is both comic and oddly lovely on its way to a messy sort of knowing.
But not too messy. One of the best things about Ah, Wilderness! is also the thing that keeps it from going anywhere really worrisome: its kids-are-all-right presentation of the young lovers. For all their bluster and feints at rebellion, Dick and Muriel are good teens—not in the sense of having knuckled under to a pervasive moral code but of having internalized kindness and responsibility. It’s fascinating to watch them come around to the revelation of their own decency. Which, at least in Dick’s case, is clearly modeled by his parents (given an endearing aura of long-term, workaday intimacy by Randall Newsome and Ora Jones). Talk about nostalgia.
The Millers’ world as O’Neill wrote it is as white as it is old-fashioned. Scott has mitigated the monochrome with what you might call a modified colorblindness, creating some questions. What does it mean, for instance, that Essie and her brother are played by black actors and Nat and his sister by white ones? How does it happen that Norah the maid is the only character whose ethnicity is explicitly acknowledged? These are puzzlements. But it’s also good to see the table pushed wider. v