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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Nature and Redemption

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When celebrated playwright Eugene O’Neill wrote the humorous Ah, Wilderness! in the early 1930s, he had recently won his second Pulitzer Prize for Drama (Beyond the Horizon, 1920, Strange Interlude, 1928). Legend has it that the idea came to him in a dream and that he wrote the entire script in only five or six weeks. Wilderness is O’Neill’s only true comedy, and many have dismissed it as one of his lesser works—something he quickly banged-out before going on to serious works like The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. But American Players Theatre (APT)in Spring Green is intrigued by that contrast in O’Neill’s style, and continues the early part of its season with a preview of Ah, Wilderness! on Friday, June 13.

  Most of O’Neill’s work is known for its darkness, but he wrote Ah, Wilderness! at one of the rare times in his life when he was actually happy. He had just returned to the United States from France and wanted to remember his childhood in a way that it had never been in real life. Director John Langs says he was drawn to the play because it differed from the rest of O’Neill’s work. Langs notes that the play shows “the redemptive power of nature,” as opposed to the darker side of humannature that so often arises in O’Neill’s plays.

  Ah, Wilderness! is a lighthearted ensemble piece set on the Fourth of July in New England, 1906. Rising Chicago actor Steve Haggard plays 17-year-old Richard Miller, son of newspaper publisher Nat Miller (played by seasoned stage veteran Henry Woronicz). Richard envisions himself as a radical and a poet, but is very inexperienced in the world. He is quite sure that he is in love with his neighbor Muriel McComber (Kelsey Brennan), but later finds himself falling for a lovely, sophisticated blonde named Belle (Emily Simoness).

  The play contrasts youth with experience in a theme that carries over into the cast. Both New York-based Simoness and Brennan are members of APT’s 2008 Apprentice Company. Brennan also was an acting intern with the Milwaukee Rep this past season. Woronicz has performed nationwide over the past several decades, and brings a sense of gravity to the role of the father. The talented Tracy Michelle Arnold plays Nat’s wife, Essie Miller. In contrast to the actual role of matriarch in a large family, Arnold won’t be given much to do in this play. Arnold, who has held larger roles in the past (including memorable performances in Renaissance Theaterworks’ String of Pearls and APT’s Night of the Iguana in 2007), should add an interesting edge to O’Neill’s comedy. She isn’t the only actress whose talent is greater than her role, as she is joined by longtime APT member Sarah Day in the role of Essie’s younger sister Lily.

  The American Players Theatre’s production of Ah, Wilderness!runs June 21-Oct. 4.

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