sun 14/07/2024

Ah, Wilderness!, Young Vic | reviews, news & interviews

Ah, Wilderness!, Young Vic

Ah, Wilderness!, Young Vic

Rarely revived O'Neill comedy is charming, but insubstantial

The thinker and the drinker: Richard (George MacKay) and Sid (Dominic Rowan)Johan Persson

Coming-of-age comedy, moonlit romance and a gentle folk soul: can this really be Eugene O’Neill? The master of darkness makes a surprising departure with semi-autobiographical 1933 work Ah, Wilderness!, which visits staple tropes – addiction, family strife, responsibility and regret – with a marked lack of rancour. Like its youthful protagonist, world-weary cynicism is a mere pose, abandoned in favour of beguiling, hopeful innocence.

Though tonally divergent, the play’s setting identifies it as a prelude to Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Were once again transported to the small-town coastal Connecticut of O’Neill’s youth, where, in 1906, the Miller family (pictured below) gathers for Fourth of July celebrations. Teenager Richard (George MacKay) is flirting with anarchy after gorging on anti-establishment literature: Wilde and Swinburne loom large. Father Nat (Martin Marquez), local newspaper owner, and mother Essie (Janie Dee) divide attention between their errant offspring and adult drama when recovering alcoholic Sid (Dominic Rowan) falls off the wagon, to the chagrin of ex-fiancée Lily (Susannah Wise), Nats spinster sister.

Ah, Wilderness!, Young VicBlistering drama is teased, but this is the conscientious objector of the O’Neill canon, supplying soothing resolutions for every burgeoning conflict – the only explosions come courtesy of rascal Tommy’s (Lucas Pinto) firecrackers. Essie initially denounces Richard’s reading material, but these are essentially the dream parents for a rebellious burgeoning artist: sufficiently disapproving to make revolt satisfying, yet shrewd enough to distinguish between real immorality and the nonconformity accompanying a pubescent search for identity. The climactic confrontation between father and son is a comic gem that heralds a rush of giddy sentimentality.

Where, you wonder, are the playwright’s patented tortured souls? There are echoes of them in the supporting roles, with hapless, self-destructive Sid and disillusioned Lily, addicted to a man she can neither love nor leave, striking some poignant notes thanks to Natalie Abrahami’s nimble production. However, though Lily lambasts the family for treating Sid’s antics as a joke, O’Neill and Abrahami mainly do the same, with the emphasis on slapstick, not fractured psyche.

Ah, Wilderness!, Young VicTenacious Marquez wrests Nat from dreary sainthood, while Janie Dee, limited by a part that mainly calls for maternal fretting, does puncture Richard’s pomposity with wry astuteness. The standouts are Rowan and MacKay, whose characters share a fondness for dramatics. The former proves a gifted – and judicious – physical comedian, while magnetic MacKay superbly captures adolescent mercurialness: committed socialist to drifting nihilist, misanthropic reprobate to starry-eyed romantic, bursting with possibilities. There’s good support from David Annen, Eleanor McLoughlin and Ashley Zhangazha (pictured above left with Wise).

Richard censures his sweetheart for not having the courage to face life’s truths, yet Ah, Wilderness! is pure wish fulfilment. Dick Birds sand-covered set captures its dreamlike qualities, representing the sands of time and allowing buried memories to literally resurface. This is a sleek, thoughtful rendering, but ONeills idealistic paean to a bygone era is ultimately too slight to withstand close scrutiny.

This is the conscientious objector of the O’Neill canon, supplying soothing resolutions for every burgeoning conflict


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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