Ah, Wilderness! is a tender memory piece about a family rejoicing and struggling through the July Fourth holiday. Led by Nicholas Hormann and Deborah Strang as the patriarch and matriarch of the Miller Clan, the talented cast has the dynamics of a true family.
In a Connecticut beach town in 1906, the Millers prepare for the Independence Day celebrations. Essie (Strang) and Nat (Hormann) are the family's cohesive bond. Eldest son Arthur (Ian Littleworth) and only daughter, Mildred (Katie Hume), give their folks little trouble, while middle son Richard (Matt Gall) has reached a crossroads that drums up frustration for himself and his concerned parents. As a burgeoning socialist poet, Richard shares his passions with his girlfriend, Muriel (Emily Goss), dispersing literature that the conservative turn-of-the-century community finds blasphemous. When her father demands that she break up with the young dreamer, Matt becomes disillusioned and finds solace at a bar, meeting a girl of ill repute (Emily Kosloski). In a secondary story, Essie's brother Sid (Alan Blumenfeld) tends to drink to excess, leaving Nat's spinster sister, Lily (Kitty Swink), unable to accept his marriage proposal even though she genuinely loves him.
Director Steve Robman creates a pageant of a simpler but maybe less actualized era, where learning was suspect and sex was dangerous. The scene at the dive bar captures a seediness, particularly with the interaction of the characters of the prostitute, the bartender, and the john. They seem wiser than Richard but also cynical and cold. Robman chooses music with different tones to separate the purity of home life with the perils of the outside world. The scenes at the house are bookended with period songs, with the cast singing "By the Silvery Moon" and "Waltz Me Around Again, Willie" that are fittingly cheery and foster a sense of fraternity. In the less wholesome dive bar, the prostitute, bartender, and patrons sing "Bedelia," with debauched revelry.
Hormann lends authority to Nat Miller. He conveys a father who doesn't always know what's best, but is willing to work with his kids (in particular Richard) to achieve this. When he attempts to punish Richard for his drunken night out, he knows it's a stern but necessary way to return his son to the flock.
Strang plays a typical doting housewife, one shocked by her children's actions but quick to defend them to the death. Her high-pitched voice and fussy demeanor illustrate an archetypical hovering mother. The two actors also convey that the Millers' marriage has not lost its sexual spark.
Blumenfeld is brash as the drunk brother. Playful but self-recriminating, he captures both the lightness of a man determined to be the life of the party and the anguish of losing his last chance at happiness because of his carousing. Swink never plays Lily as an old maid, desperate for a life with any man. She balances Lily's desire for a marriage like her brother's but is determined not to allow anyone's actions ruin her life. Gall is appropriately naive and bombastic as the youthful poet brimming with ideologies.
Frederica Nascimento's sets evoke Americana to its core with a large American flag waving on the backdrop. Garry D. Lennon's costumes are appropriately turn-of-the-century garb. Tom Ontiveros utilizes lighting to perfectly distinguish the seedy dock bar from the Miller’s spacious home. Musical director Jonathan Tessero makes sure that the actors' voices conjure the poetry and tranquility of the 1900 folk songs.
A leisurely paced trip to the past, Ah, Wilderness! is a warm blanket of a show, the antithesis of most of O'Neill's other works. A Noise Within captures the innocence of a family’s conflict where a boy's sloppy night on the town is the highest tragedy they face.