ACT stages ‘Ah, Wilderness!’ for the third time

“Ah, Wilderness!” is a sweetly sentimental coming-of-age tale that supposedly represents the youth and family that Eugene O’Neill wishes he had had.

Presented by American Conservatory Theater and set in a Connecticut beachside town on July 4 and 5, 1906, it features Thomas Stagnitta as 16-year-old Richard Miller.

Richard is a bright young fellow who reads widely, expresses cynicism and is experiencing the first pangs of love.

He’s lucky enough to be part of a stable, loving family headed by his bemused father, Nat (Anthony Fusco), and his concerned mother, Essie (Rachel Ticotin). He has an older brother, Arthur (Michael McIntire), a Yale student; and two younger siblings, Mildred (Christina Liang) and Tommy (Brandin Francis Osborne).

The household also includes Nat’s unmarried sister, Lily (Margo Hall), and Essie’s unmarried brother, Sid Davis (Dan Hiatt). Lily and Sid were once engaged, but his inability to stop drinking led her to break the engagement. Nevertheless, the two obviously care for each other and for the rest of the family.

When Richard gets a note from his girlfriend, Muriel McComber (Rosa Palmeri), saying she doesn’t want to see him any more, he accompanies an acquaintance to a dive bar where he has his first encounter with alcohol and a hooker, Belle (Caitlan Taylor).

By the end of the play, he has been properly chastened and has even been reconciled with Muriel.

O’Neill wrote “Ah, Wilderness!” in 1932 as a supposedly idealized, though fictionalized, view of his own family and youth. Twenty-four years later his “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” premiered. Written in 1941-42, it was a far more realistic view set in the same house in 1912. The similarities and differences between the two come into sharp focus for those who saw Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s brilliant “Long Day’s” this year.

This ACT production is directed by Casey Stangl, who was pressed into service after the unexpected death of associate artistic director Mark Rucker in August. He had already selected the cast and worked with the design team.

Nevertheless, she rose to the challenge and staged a solid production with a mix of seasoned actors along with 10 (one of them an understudy) third-year students in the ACT Master of Fine Arts Program.

The always reliable Fusco is a nicely understated Nat, who understands what Richard is going through but who agrees with Ticotin’s Essie that he must have a man-to-man talk with his son. That awkward scene is one of the comic highlights of the production.

Another comes courtesy of Hiatt when the drunken Sid tries unsuccessfully and hilariously to behave himself at the dinner table, much to the consternation of Hall’s Lily and the amusement of everyone else.

Richard’s scene at the bar with Belle also is amusing, for despite all his bravado, Richard shows that he’s in way over his head. Too often, though, Stagnitta becomes heavy-handed with Richard’s excesses. Likewise, there are few sparks between him and Palmeri’s Muriel.

This is ACT’s third go-round with the play. The first time was in 1978 directed by Allen Fletcher, and the second was a revival in 1980 with virtually the same cast.

Set designer Ralph Funicello was on the design team for those earlier productions as he is the current one. His set this time is more minimal but nonetheless effective. The design team also includes Robert Wierzel for lighting, Jessie Amoroso for costumes and Paul James Prendergast for music and sound.

Running about two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission, this production is well done and enjoyable.

“Ah, Wilderness!” will continue through Nov. 8 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

 

About the Author

Judy RichterJudy reviews San Francisco Bay Area theater and writes feature articles about activities of the Stanford women's basketball team and Fast Break Club. A longtime Bay Area journalist, she is retired from the San Francisco Chronicle, where she was a writer and copy editor.View all posts by Judy Richter →