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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Nostalgic Narrative

Theater Review

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For author Eugene O’Neill, Ah, Wilderness!, his only comedy, was clearly a catharsis of fancy. The Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning American playwright was best known for dramas doting on dysfunction and addiction based on personal experience. Scholars cite Wilderness, a warmly nostalgic snapshot of a New England family Fourth of July circa 1906, as the life O’Neill, born to an acting couple in a Broadway hotel room in 1888, probably wished he had.

  That same pulpy nostalgia rings forth in American Players Theatre’s (APT) production of the 1933 comedy, which opened Saturday at the Spring Green outdoor amphitheater. However, the author’s mastery at crafting characters and APT’s consistently uncanny capability to rise above the limitations of its material make this three-hour production surprisingly enjoyable despite its occasionally tedious treacle.

  The coming-of-age narrative focuses on Richard “Dick” Miller (an engaging Steve Haggard), one of four children of newspaper owner Nat Miller (Henry Woronicz) and wife Essie (Tracy Michelle Arnold), cornerstones of little Waterbury, Conn.’s genteel society. Home and hearth is very much the familial focal point, and scandal and indecency are measured in socialist screeds and verses from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. (The play’s title derives from Quatrain XI of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation.)

  Woronicz, new to APT, provides the play with a wonderfully conceived moral touchstone, creating appropriate chemistry with his earnest, albeit lost son and his doting wife, whom Arnold plays as a cross between old scold and mother hen. Less evident, and perhaps more effective because of it, is the romantic tension between Essie’s brother Sid (Kenneth Albers) and Lily (Sarah Day), Nat’s spinster sister and Sid’s former betrothed. Albers, an APT director who later this season will helm George Bernard Shaw’s Widower’s House, steals his scenes with a broadly comic take on the loveable alcoholic. But it’s only through Day’s earnest but arm’s-length admiration of Sid that both roles gain verisimilitude. The pair is a pleasure to watch.

  Director John Langs provides a steady hand to the play’s narrative rudder, which helps APT’s production steer clear of the sentimental shoals that could have wrecked what in the end results in an enjoyable and engaging summer evening.