We don't want to be disrespectful to Eugene O'Neill, one of the giants of the American theater. Yet there's no escaping the conclusion that O'Neill's 70-year-old chestnut Ah, Wilderness! has aged into a giant yawn.
Some plays grow in stature with the passing of time. Other plays are of their time, and when that time has passed, it is kindest to retire them to the bookshelf. Ah, Wilderness! is very much of its time. When O'Neill wrote this comedy of recollection in Depression-era 1932, he believed that the United States had gone to the dogs. He penned this affectionate evocation of small-town life in 1906 for a 1930s audience that, like O'Neill himself, was able to recall firsthand the nostalgic tranquility that had defined America before the Great War.
But who today is old enough to go around moping for the tender mercies of 1906? So the script has lost its primary and very specific reason for being. In the 21st century, Ah, Wilderness! has been reduced to an anachronism -- strong on mood, slight on substance, even thinner on relevance.
At least the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production begins on a high, if reverent, note. Joseph P. Tilford's scenic design -- a simple open platform, sparely adorned with white wicker furniture and framed by a huge 1906 American flag -- is a stunner. But once the play begins, troubles appear almost at once. Voices are lost. (I have never known the Loretto-Hilton stage to be so acoustically contentious.) Unhappily, the voices that can be heard possess a dissonant array of phony accents. Ah, Wilderness! is set in small-town Connecticut. Well, I once lived in small-town Connecticut, and I never heard such accents as these. Why director Edward Stern would strive to convey this play's universality by mounting it on an abstract set and then diabolically hamstring his actors with foolish accents boggles the imagination.
The two worst victims are its two leading characters. If anything about Ah, Wilderness! continues to resonate, it is its sensitive portrait of a father and son. But this father and son are so busy pronouncing "don" for "darn" and "hot" for "heart" that both actors fail to create empathetic characters. As Richard, the idealistic young malcontent in wild pursuit of love, Daniel Talbott has a curious penchant for delivering his lines to the ceiling. That's an effective way to create a disconnect with your audience.
The core role belongs to Richard's father. As the editor of the local newspaper, Nat Miller is one of the town's leading citizens. But he's not so old that he cannot recognize his own lost youth in his rebellious son. There's a simple technique to enacting Nat: The more effortless the portrayal, the more paternal he becomes. Alas, Joneal Joplin seems to think that every line requires a punch word. His delivery italicizes at least one word in every sentence. It's so self-defeating. (By the way, I'd be curious to know at what 1906 emporium Nat purchased the elegant bathrobe he wears in the final scene. It might befit a Russian czar, but it's wrong for a small-town editor.)
Robert Elliott, the sole actor who refuses to be hogtied by an accent, gives the evening's most moving performance. Elliott invests the role of rum pot Uncle Sid, the charismatic yet hapless town drunk, with emotion, ambivalence, subtext -- with, in a word, O'Neill. Elliott is also the only actor among the principals who seems to understand that the truest comedy is grounded in utter reality. Rather than try to win the audience over with tricky stage business, Elliott just ambles into a scene and breaks your heart.
As Muriel McComber, the much-talked-about object of Richard's infatuation, Winslow Corbett arrives in Act 3 like an unexpected summer breeze. Even as the action is bogging down with a terminal case of "the slows," her bright, spunky presence gets the play simmering again. In an earlier scene at the Pleasant Beach House, where Richard is introduced to the wicked world of sloe-gin fizzes and cigarettes, Jerry Vogel in the small, thankless role of an unnamed salesman provides a welcome touch of believability.
Ah, Wilderness! holds a pivotal place in the American theater archive. Before 1932, O'Neill's early experimental dramas reshaped Broadway, but in retrospect, these exercises in style also were of the moment. Yet in writing this simple family comedy, America's only Nobel Prize-winning playwright finally found the key that allowed him entry to such later autobiographical masterworks as The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey into Night. Everyone who loves serious theater must be grateful for Ah, Wilderness!. But don't be surprised if, despite your best efforts to embrace them, ultimately both this play and this production benign you into numbness.