I hope that by describing the opening-night performance of American Players Theatre's Ah, Wilderness! as pleasant I don't sound too much like Kevin Costner telling Madonna that her concert was "neat."
John Langs' direction of Eugene O'Neill's lone comedy is sensitive. Some describe the play as O'Neill's wistful reworking of his childhood, and there is certainly a sweetness to this work and some really funny moments. But it's hard not to think of O'Neill's struggles with alcoholism, depression and strained relations with his own children.
The play is set in Connecticut in the early 1900s, during the Fourth of July celebrations at the Miller household. Richard, the middle child, will soon be attending Yale, and his mother has just discovered his stash of "radical" books by the likes of Wilde and Shaw. He is prone to making broad and strident statements and is in the throes of his first love. When his girlfriend's uptight father discovers his bold love letters, the relationship is brought to an abrupt halt. Devastated, Richard embarks on a bungled night of debauchery that involves drinking and prostitutes. Not faring well in either area, he returns home sloppily reciting poetry to his stunned family. As his parents sort out his punishment, he confesses his foolish escapades to his love Muriel in a tender and moonlit secret tryst.
Steve Haggard convincingly captures Richard's awkward, bumbling bravado and passion and is a real asset to APT. As his parents, Henry Woronicz and Tracy Michelle Arnold trade barbs with genuine affection. Also staying at the Miller household are Uncle Sid and Aunt Lily (Ken Albers and Sarah Day), who have their own complicated history. Albers has the most fun with his role as the scamp whose drunken antics during a family dinner are laugh-out-loud funny.
While the play may be a nostalgic look at a time when things were simpler, when young lovers wrote letters to each other instead of texting, it's clear that the business of growing up and navigating a first love are challenging no matter how idyllic the setting.