Bart Mendoza 5 a.m., Dec. 8
It's like a parallel universe apart from Eugene O'Neill's other plays. After he wrote Mourning Becomes Electra and lived the torments of Long Day's Journey Into Night, O'Neill created a time and place where tragedy dare not tread.
In Ah, Wilderness - set in 1906 and produced in 1933 - even the loss of innocence gets thwarted.
O'Neill called the play "a comedy of recollection" where troubles rise and drift away. Like Grover's Corners in Our Town, such a place may never have existed (though O'Neill swore they were commonplace on the eastern seaboard). Most likely, this was how it seemed to the playwright, who grew up in the darker universe next door.
The play takes place on July fourth and fifth, a time of celebration and forgiveness (two of the play's most repeated words: "forget" and "forgive"). Seventeen-year-old-Richard vows to "face life as it is." So he goes to a bar, tastes his first liquor, and almost goes upstairs with a prostitute.
Ah, Wilderness exudes humor and good cheer. But New Village Arts treats the script as a drab, dated period piece in need of comedic resuscitation. Director Amanda Sitton, who has done good work before, adds extraneous sight gags and business that consistently upstage the text.
Some examples: she makes Nora, the Irish maid, near blind and bumping into the furniture, a running-gag that soon ceases to amuse; when Nat Miller (Manny Fernandes, one of the production's few bright spots) tells son Richard about the facts of life, Richard wanders off-stage for an apple. Both the blindness and the wandering are extra-textual additions that steal focus from the story.
Sitton also forces a way-too-chipper veneer onto every scene. The cast pushes so much happiness they create a parallel universe on the other side of the play: Yummyland.
Performances are uneven at best. Dana Case makes Lily Miller, the spinster, a daffy nonentity. Kristianne Kurner shouts headlines, as Richard's mother. She needs to lower her voice in pitch and volume.
Daren Scott does a genuinely comic turn as drunken Uncle Sid (a portrayal, unlike most others, at once comic and realistic). Kelly Iverson scores in three roles (though the famous boat scene between Muriel and Richard falls flat). And Kyle Lucy does good work as Richard.
O'Neill said Richard was "the way I would have liked my childhood to have been." Years later he added, "the truth is I had no youth."