“Ah Wilderness!” Review- The Goodman Theatre brings an atypical Eugene O’Neill play to life

RandallNewsome, Matthew Abraham and Ora Jones in Eugene O'Neill's "Ah Wilderness!", directed by Steve Scott at Goodman Theatre(June 17-July 23, 2017); photo by Liz Lauren
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“Ah, Wilderness!” a play written in a single month in 1932 by Eugene O’Neill is currently in production at The Goodman Theatre, (The Albert), 170 N. Dearborn St. through July 23rd. Starring Matthew Abraham, Will Allan, Larry Bates, Niall Cunningham, Joe Dempsey, Amanda Drinkall, Kate Fry, Ricardo Gutierrez, Ora Jones, Travis A. Knight, Ayssette Muñoz, Randall Newsome, Bri Sudia, Rochelle Therrien and Bret Tuomi, each of whom make a distinct impression on the delighted audience, it’a a finely-wrought engaging performance.

                                                      Niall Cunningham and Aysette Muñoz

The play is the author’s only comedy, a vision of youth among a comfortably off and close-knit family in a small town in New England on the 4th of July in the year 1906. Unlike the rest of O’Neill’s tragic and brooding plays, it is sentimental and has a happy ending. It’s often compared or contrasted with “Long Day’s Journey into Night”, which is a later, much darker, and probably truer autobiographical portrait.

The 17 year-old middle son of a middle-class grouping is predictably in love with a neighbor, and his head is in the clouds both from awakened ardor and from reading a variety of authors. He believes Ibsen, Wilde, Swinburne and Khayyam are “the world’s greatest”, and their poetry and prose provoke him to impassioned quoting as well as pronouncements of scorn for the ignorance of his family’s attitudes. He is also prone to much angst and self-disparagement- understandable in a gently raised Yale bound budding playwright.

Randall Newsome, Bri Sudia, Niall Cunningham, Larry Bates, Rochelle Therrien, Matthew Abraham, Ora Jones and Kate Fry

Much has been made of the “coming of age” aspects of this piece, and the clan portrayed is often referred to as ”idyllic”, but what is most striking about both the play and the portrayals given the characters by this excellently directed (by Steve Scott) cast is more than just the abundant affection, irony, and gentle humor with which they approach each other and themselves- it’s the essential decency of their way of life. In a time when “political correctness” pales in the face of a regime with seemingly little consciousness of social justice, this play demonstrates how very far good manners and tolerance of human foibles can take people.

In a stunning main set by Todd Rosenthal patterned after “Spithead”, the 18th century built house and 20th century Bermuda home of Eugene O’Neill, on the water, surrounded by boats, and surmounted by blue skies where an American flag flutters, this family deals with each other and their neighbors with exceptional fairness and wisdom. Kudos goes to Amy Clark for clever and colorful period costumes and Richard Woodbury for sound and music wonderfully evocative of a bygone era when life was- if not simpler- prone to clearer rules and roles.

                                                       Amanda Drinkall and Niall Cunningham

The fine cast features a terrific Goodman Theatre debut by Niall Cunningham as the thoughtful son we all wish we’d raised, Kate Fry as the long suffering “spinster” aunt who eschews but cherishes the marital aspirations of the unrepentant gambler and drunkard uncle played with fabulous wry reflective wit by Larry Bates, the somewhat clueless and bumbling yet staunchly supportive mother played with perfect dignity by Ora Jones, and the laid-back yet rein-holding patriarch, portrayed with forbearance and real affection byRandall Newsome. 

There are also a number of  strong and memorable cameo appearances, including  Amanda Drinkall as the not-very-hardened prostitute who fails to corrupt our young man. This reviewer would be remiss for not mentioning a charming short appearance by Chicago’s own Ricardo Gutierrez, who always disarms with physical humor, early comedian in the making young Matthew Abraham, who got a lot of laughs with his intuitive rendering of the “bonehead” young brother, and the hilarious portrayal of the exuberant irreverent Irish servant, played by Bri Sudia.

                                                      Randall Newsome and Ricardo Gutierrez

This is a play that sped by its 2 ½ hours in duration. It was fun, the issues it raised were intelligently addressed if not   resolved, the whole a fine explication of it’s human relationships; in particular, it makes very telling points about the importance and strength of extended and committed family life. Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls, long experienced at bringing O’Neill to life at this theater, has produced another successful-and sophisticated- interpretation. It’s highly recommended.

                                                       Will Allen and Niall Cunningham

For information and tickets to all the fine shows at The Goodman Theatre, go to www.goodmantheatre.org

All photos by Liz Lauren



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