The cast of Ah, Wilderness!, directed by Steve Scott, at the Goodman Theatre.
The cast of Ah, Wilderness!, directed by Steve Scott, at the Goodman Theatre.
(© Liz Lauren)

Sweet, simple romantic comedies are not the trademark of Eugene O'Neill, the depressed and alcoholic dramatist who created some of America's best and most tragic dramas, including Long Day's Journey Into Night and Desire Under the Elms. But the Goodman Theatre is representing O'Neill's cheerier side with a new production of his semiautobiographical comedy Ah, Wilderness!

It's a beautiful summer in 1906. The bookish 17-year-old Richard Miller (Niall Cunningham) is spending his Independence Day weekend mooning over his first love, Muriel (Ayssette Muñoz), and reading salacious plays and poems by Oscar Wilde and Omar Khayaam. His father and mother (Randall Newsome and Ora Jones) worry about both developments, but trust their son to make good decisions. After being seemingly snubbed by Muriel, Richard sneaks out for a night out on the town, while the adults in his family struggle with their own matters of the heart.

It's not a particularly stirring story, but under the tender direction of Steve Scott, the Miller family at the core of Ah, Wilderness! comes off as heartwarmingly kind rather than cloyingly sweet. Like countless teens before him, Richard sees himself as both a romantic idealist and a world-weary cynic. Cunningham plays the passionate adolescent with a winning sincerity and a boyish physicality straight out of an early Norman Rockwell painting.

Newsome gives a strong comedic performance as family patriarch Nat, whose father-knows-best bluster belies a sensitive, understanding soul. He shares a sweet romantic spark with Jones, whose performance is witty as well as warm and maternal. As the wicked Uncle Sid, Larry Bates brings high energy and high spirits, though his drunken shenanigans never seem entirely natural.

Highlights from the supporting cast include a bawdy comic turn from Amanda Drinkall as Belle, a local lush who frightens Richard away from the allure of "loose women," and Will Allan as Wint Selby, a fast-talking Yale student who ropes Richard into a caper.

Costume designer Amy Clark has decked the residents of the idyllic town in well-made, ice-cream-sundae-colored clothes. Todd Rosenthal's set plucks a dining room right out of an Edwardian dollhouse and places it down on a placid beach. The Miller home is safe, sunny and well cared for, if ever so slightly askew in the sand.

Ah, Wilderness! is a finely crafted, fun piece of theater with low stakes and little tension. Its lead character misbehaves, dolefully accepts his punishment, and learns a valuable lesson. While it isn't gripping stuff, what it lacks in urgency it makes up for in charm.