Ah, Wilderness! - Eugene O'Neill’s 'Only Comedy'

The Young Vic, Play Directed by Natalie Abrahami

 

Review by Daen Palma Huse

Photography by Johan Persson

George MacKay, Janie Dee and Martin Marquez in Ah, Wilderness at the Young Vic. Photo by Johan Persson

George MacKay, Janie Dee and Martin Marquez in Ah, Wilderness at the Young Vic. Photo by Johan Persson

Eugene O’Neill was born in 1888 in New York, the son of Irish actor James O’Neill, and spent much of his early youth touring with him, being raised in a very Catholic setting. Despite having endured the untimely deaths and illness of loved ones, alcoholism, and several suicide attempts as well as an initial uncertainty of what to attain in both his professional and private life, O’Neill nevertheless became an extraordinary dramatist. His celebrated works include the play, Ah, Wilderness!, considered to be his only comedy and a lighter prelude to the much darker Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Ah, Wilderness! is set in the Miller’s small-town family home in 1906 and premiered on Broadway in 1933. The costume and stage design in Abrahami’s production, however, suggest a more ambiguous setting. The story centres around the teenage Richard Miller, played by the fantastic George MacKay, touching on many issues including alcoholism, love, regret amongst family members and Richard’s own youthful escapades with an obsession for poetry and writing which takes centre stage in the play. O’Neill’s play is best understood when looking at the playwright’s own life. While Richard’s obsession could be translated to other interests if set in a different time – much of the character of Richard perhaps stems from O’Neill’s own youth in a very religious family surrounding, being sent to catholic schools exclusively until pushing to go to a non-religious school. O’Neill’s own youth might be best described as a childlike search for purpose, which very well reflects in his stage character Richard.

Members of the company in Ah, Wilderness! at the Young Vic. Photo by Johan Persson

Members of the company in Ah, Wilderness! at the Young Vic. Photo by Johan Persson

Richard is essentially portrayed as the young idealist of the family. He faces disapproval at home because of his love of Henrik Ibsen, Oscar Wilde and other ideological writers, whose works were publicly condemned and burned in Germany the same year the play was first shown in 1933. A tension caused by conflicting ideas in O’Neill’s own family is translated here. The actors in the Young Vic’s production portray this tension well within the familiar setting of the Miller’s home. While the family home suggests an intimate, warm shelter for its members, existing tension gains prominence in conversations and a surreal element is added by the unusual set design.

Stage designer Dick Bird, who last year designed Kate Bush's show Before the Dawn, has created a surreal stage design for this production, complete with sand dunes and over-dimensional doorways. Bird says that he was inspired by the Namibian ghost town of Kolmanskop, which was inhabited by German miners at the beginning of the 20th century but was soon deserted and the houses abandoned to be filled by desert sand, which has created an extraordinarily beautiful landscape. O’Neill’s setting is ‘flooded’ by this sand as a dreamy metaphor for the passage of memory and time.

Ashley Zhangazha and Susannah Wise in Ah, Wilderness! at the Young Vic. Photo by Johan Persson

Ashley Zhangazha and Susannah Wise in Ah, Wilderness! at the Young Vic. Photo by Johan Persson

Despite initial health and safety concerns for the actors, the surreal character of the ‘sandscape’ nevertheless reflects the poetic nature of young Richard's character and allows the audience to delve into the subconscious dimension that this play evokes. Quite early on in the play, books are dug out of the sand, perhaps as a metaphor for the hidden stories behind what seems to be an average family of the time.

Directed by Natalie Abrahami, and featuring refined performances by George MacKay as Richard Miller, Janie Dee as Essie Miller, Martin Marquez as Nat Miller and David Annen as David McComber, the Young Vic has staged a thought-provoking play that is not often shown.

During his life Eugene O’Neill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and won the Pulitzer Prize four times, firstly for Beyond the Horizon, his first full-length play which opened on Broadway in 1920, and lastly for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which was awarded posthumously, and is closely based on his family. 

 

Visit www.youngvic.org for more information on upcoming plays - including Nick Gill's adaptation of The Trial by Franz Kafka which is opening later this month.