Nostalgia and politics in Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!”
Emily Goss (Muriel McComber) and Matt Gall (Richard). | Craig Schwartz

PASADENA, Calif.—Set around the turn of the last century in New London, Conn.—where young Eugene had summered—O’Neill’s 1933 Ah, Wilderness! is a marked departure from his usually gloomy plays, fraught with familial Sturm und Drang. Indeed, with their happy if imperfect lives, this comedy’s Millers are the polar opposites of those long suffering characters in his angsty final dramas, such as The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten. Indeed, one could say that the Millers are the family O’Neill wished he had grown up in, rather than the tense, dysfunctional, substance-abusing unit he had the misbegotten misfortune to have been born into.

Nonetheless, one can sleuth out some of O’Neill’s recurring themes in A Noise Within’s (ANW) production: Addiction to the demon rum and related consequences; sexual repression; a young man’s striving for independence. The latter is emphasized by setting the action on and about the Fourth of July, aka “Independence Day.” But this also goes to O’Neill’s politics: Teenager Richard Miller (Matt Gall), who pursues Muriel McComber (Emily Goss), reads and quotes books by radicals such as free love espouser Emma Goldman and advocates various leftist ideas.

As a Greenwich Village habitué and one of the Provincetown Players, O’Neill hobnobbed with leading leftwing intellectuals, notably John Reed, who went on to write Ten Days That Shook the World, that classic chronicle of the Russian Revolution. (Their friendship is memorably recounted in Warren Beatty’s stellar 1981 Reed biopic Reds.) O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, which originated with the Provincetown Players in 1922 before it was produced on Broadway, could be read as a dramatization of Karl Marx’s theory of the alienation of labor. (See my comparison of The Hairy Ape’s depiction of the estrangement of workers to 1936’s Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin—who would marry O’Neill’s daughter Oona.)

Although O’Neill could render Marxist theory onstage my sense is that unlike Reed, he really didn’t buy into socialism. Unlike his character Richard Miller, who does believe in romanticized radical ideals, O’Neill was probably too cynical about human nature (at least as we know it under capitalism). After all, unlike Richard, young Eugene had, by all accounts, a troubled if not outright miserable childhood that shaped his more misanthropic view of us mere mortals.

Steven Robman skillfully directs the Wilderness! ensemble. Scenic designer Frederica Nascimento’s sets are simple in comparison to those of other ANW productions, such as the elaborate home in last year’s adaptation of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Garry Lennon’s costuming imparts a sense of fashions as worn in New England, circa 1906.

Standouts in the cast of about 15 players include Nicholas Hormann as Nat Miller, the family patriarch who publishes the local newspaper. It’s refreshing to see a principled publisher standing up for freedom of speech and against external pressures in this day and age, as we suffer under a wannabe dictatorial president (alas, his “bone spurs” have prevented him from being an actual strongman), who condemns “fake news” even as he willy-nilly pulls slime journalism items out of his rear end. Hormann’s performance as a loving father is full of nuance, as he resists condemning his son’s incipient radicalism and suspected saloon and sexual peccadilloes. One gets a sense that this may be the father O’Neill wished he had but didn’t, so he conjured him up as Nat.

As the presumably Irish Mildred, Katie Hume is droll as a servant from O’Neill’s old country. Emily Kosloski, who’d co-starred in ANW’s production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, tarts it up again as a bargirl who tempts the virginal Richard. As Nat’s wife Essie, the Millers’ matriarch, Deborah Strang reminded me of the latter day Lillian Gish as she appeared in films such as 1967’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Comedians. Nat and Essie’s enduring love is one of the play’s takes on relationships at various stages of development (or not) that includes the tender teenaged lunacy of Richard and Muriel.

As Lily Miller, Kitty Swink plays the family millstone, that “old maid” aunt who never got married and hence taken off the Millers’ hands. (The January 17th Ovation Awards ceremony at the Ahmanson Theatre was full of anti-Trump invective, and during the presenters’ banter, Kitty punned on her feline-sounding name. Referring to Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape, Swink—who’d appeared in 1988’s Patty Hearst—quipped: “Let’s just say this ‘kitty’ grabs back.”)

Lily’s on again-off again relationship with Sid Davis is one of Wilderness’ major subplots. She won’t wed Sid because he imbibes—but maybe Sid hits the bottle because his affections for Lily are unrequited? Which could also explain his presumed dabbling with ladies of the night? In any case, as this struggling newspaperman, the redoubtable Alan Blumenfeld steals the show. Blumenfeld is the L.A. theater scene’s actor’s actor, a playhouse perennial who venerably treads the boards, inexhaustibly bringing to life characters created by all the great playwrights.

Blumenfeld’s versatile acting is so seamless that I’ve failed sometimes to single him out from the pack because he’s so integrally woven into a production’s tapestry. It’s not a matter of taking his talent for granted, but rather, like that indispensable family member who will always be there for you, Alan has a stage presence one can always count on.

However, this time, as the best thing in ANW’s Wilderness! it is really impossible not to lift him up for praise. Whether sober or in his cups, Blumenfeld’s Sid is a delight to behold. He even gets a chance to let loose with song and dance, revealing and releasing his inner vaudevillian. Wilderness! is a veritable showcase of his diverse talents, ranging from the comedic to the tragic. Were it not for the sheer joy and exuberance, as well as poignancy of his performance as an older gentlemen wooing the demurring object of his desire, ANW’s production may have been little more than an old fashioned, outdated period piece. (Look for Blumenfeld to kick off Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s summer season on June 3 as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.)

O’Neill derived the title of Ah, Wilderness! from the 1120 poem Rubáiyát by Omar Khayyám. Given the Trump regime’s efforts to ban travel by Iranians, we should be grateful that ANW’s production, wherein that troublemaker Richard quotes from the Persian poet, was not censored and prohibited from appearing on this Pasadena stage. One can only wonder what grist these bans would have made for the peerless pen of a John Reed or O’Neill, who so caustically assailed July 4th as a reflection of that bewildering wilderness that is America.

A Noise Within’s Ah, Wilderness! plays through May 20 in repertory with Shakespeare’s King Lear and Man of La Mancha as part of its “Beyond Our Wildest Dreams” season celebrating the company’s 25th anniversary, at 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena 91107. For exact times, dates and more info: (636) 356-3100, ext. 1; www.anoisewithin.org. Free parking in an adjacent garage.

Film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Sergei Eisenstein’s revolutionary classic Battleship Potemkin on Friday, 7:30 pm, March 24 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. For info: laworkersedsoc@gmail.com.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Film historian and critic Ed Rampell was named after CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in cinema at New York's Hunter College. After graduating, he lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, where he reported on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific movement for "20/20," Reuters, AP, Radio Australia, Newsweek, etc. He went on to co-write "The Finger" column for New Times L.A. and has written for many other publications, including Variety, Mother Jones, The Nation, Islands, L.A. Times, L.A. Daily News, Written By, The Progressive, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and AlterNet.

Rampell appears in the 2005 Australian documentary "Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise." He co-authored two books on Pacific Island politics, as well as two film histories: "Made In Paradise, Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas" and "Pearl Harbor in the Movies." Rampell is the author of "Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History of the United States." He is a co-founder of the James Agee Cinema Circle and one of L.A.'s most prolific film/theatre/opera reviewers.

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