Ah, Wilderness! is billed as a comedy, one of very few written by O’Neill, and it has tended to be held up as a contrast to his more doom-laden, harrowing dramas such as ‘The Iceman Cometh’ and ‘A Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ , to which this is a prequel (though those plays also have their own elements of dark humour). The scene is the supposedly idyllic well-off Connecticut home of the Millers, with the extended family gathering for Independence Day celebrations. The members we are introduced to include the successful newspaperman dad (played by Martin Marquez), gently nagging and watchful mother Essie (Janie Dee) and comic drunken Uncle Sid, with the main action focusing on the moody adolescent, thwarted romantic youngest son Richard (George MacKay), with his literary aspirations and rebellion against the established order.
While each member plays up to their established roles in the household, with much teasing, jibing and self-parody, the overwhelming mood of the family is one of warmth, with a sense of decency, realism and protectiveness which allows them all to enjoy each other’s company and get along. Even though there is rule-breaking and ensuing scolding (mostly from Essie), it is treated as an inevitable part of the patterns of human behaviour, and tolerated with a shrug, with hypocrisy quickly exposed. However, this cheery good nature hides a darker strain: as with many O’Neill plays, alcoholism wreaks ruin. Uncle Sid is shown to have a self-sabotaging relationship with the bottle (leading to estrangement from his former fiancée – played by Susannah Wise – who has never stopped loving him, as well as dismissal from his job), and when he returns to the house after a heavy -drinking picnic with his brother the resulting drunken bonhomie soon teeters into something more nasty. In addition, Richard’s romantic rejection leads him into the seedy waterfront world of prostitution and bar brawls, initiation into an adult life that both his father and uncle have wallowed in previously. This is all beautifully rendered by O’Neill.
Further melancholy is added by the decision to show a Eugene O’Neill figure writing the play in the background of the action, stalking the action and setting up the stage for particular scenes. He is played with a wounded intensity by David Annen, his sad, rheumy eyes and hangdog expression giving a devastating poignancy to the events from his past (the play being based on the author’s childhood), particularly when he surveys the unending waste of drink, while he himself still swigs on whisky and beer, powerless to shake it. This painful re-living, with the inability to change the course of your life and the choices you made, was reminiscent at times of Bergman’s ‘Wild Strawberries’, and the ageing professor’s feelings of nostalgic futility and regret in that work. In addition, the background celebrations, the coming together of the family with its various troubles across generations, the nature of time in the play, quoted poetry, the rituals, the lost love and repetitions of errors, gives a Chekovian, chamber piece cast to the comedic action. Richard, with his references to suicide and his pained expressions (and dark clothes) at times resembles an Ivy League Konstantin.
Music, poetry and clothing also put take the theatre into a strange, timeless, memory –zone. Bob Dylan plays before the action begins, and Sid sings a snatch of Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’, while Converse Chucks and modern teenage clothing clash with the more classic well-to-do American 1906-garb worn by most of the actors. Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ and ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ (from which the play gets its name) are also cited as controversial works by the older characters, thus locating the action, superficially, in a particular era. The play’s set, with its banks of sand (sands of time?), and the watery, blurry, echoey voiceover giving stage directions also emphasize the non-naturalistic elements in the work.
Overall the play’s action is gripping and entertaining, the comedy propelling the events along and the inter-play between the characters and their quick-fire dialogue allowing us to see all sides of them, with the creeping menace always hovering near. Georg MacKay is particularly impressive, able to switch from a jerky, awkward parody of a teen to a frail, haunted youth who you really feel for, particularly in the tense, shadowy scenes in the late night bar. But the actors all support each other, the family aware of their shared flaws, and none are untouched by that haunting, elegiac spirit which watches over, and which dominates my memory of the drama, and the snapshot it gives of the character’s lives.