Sunday, October 25, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Standing in the Moonlight" (on Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!)

standing in the moonlight
by Douglas Messerli

Eugene O’Neill Ah, Wilderness! / San Francisco, A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theater) at the Geary Theater / the performance I saw was the matinee of October 24, 2015.

As numerous critics since its first appearance in 1933 have noted, Eugene O’Neill’s comedy Ah, Wilderness! is almost the mirror opposite of his great family drama of 1957, Long Day’s Journey into Night. Reviewing the 1988 New York revival of the comedy, Frank Rich argues that the life of the central character of Ah, Wilderness!, Arthur Miller, represents the boyhood O’Neill might have wished for himself instead of one he lived out with his penurious, unloving father, his drunken brother, and his drug-dependent mother. 
     Certainly, the early work has intimations of that world. Arthur’s uncle Sid (Dan Hiatt) is known as an alcoholic and returns from the play’s 4th of July picnic so inebriated that he dares to entertain the family with his satiric reiteration of his brother-in-law Nat’s (Anthony Fusco) often told stories by claiming to have "invented" the lobster’s heaped upon their table, and, is soon after trotted off to bed. Sid, furthermore, has just, once more, lost his job. 
     The family’s aunt Lilly (Margo Hall), is a woman so opposed to alcohol and unforgiving about those who imbibe that she is determined to remain a lonely school teacher, forced to live at home, rather than marry Sid, the man everyone recognizes she loves. 
     Arthur’s elder brother, Richard (Thomas Stagnitta), a student at Yale, is seemingly as empty-minded as Arthur is a passionate reader, deeply affected and troubled by everything he reads—which includes a great many works by the likes of Ibsen, Shaw, Wilde, Emma Goldman, and Omar Khayyám. And, at one point in his despair over his girlfriend’s Muriel’s seeming abandonment of him, Arthur not only sneaks out of the house without reporting to his family, but visits a local “dive” with two “tarts,” one of whom, Belle (Caitlan Taylor), gets him drunk and attempts to seduce him to join her in an upstairs bedroom.
     Yet, all in all, family life in Ah, Wilderness! is as innocent and sentimental as The Music Man or Meet Me in St. Louis, and even uses some of the same tropes (Mrs. Shinn, the mayor’s wife in The Music Man is also outraged by her daughter’s reading of Omar Khayyám, and the mayor of the small Iowa town is convinced of young Tommy’s deprived behavior as David McComber [Adrian Roberts] is of Arthur’s moral upbringing in the O’Neill play). It is no accident that O’Neill’s play was transformed, somewhat successfully, into a musical, Take Me Along.
     The Miller family, for all their worries and fears about each other, are full of love and desperate to protect one another in a way that O’Neill’s real family might never have imagined. Indeed the playwright’s view of the small New England community wherein the Miller’s reside is so idealistic and hopeful that it makes Thornton Wilder’s Grovers Corners look like a bit like dreary depressed village. 
    Even punishment here is postponed and eventually abandoned. Apparently Mr. Miller and his loving wife Essie (Rachel Ticotin) have never laid a hand on their children. Late in the play, when the large moon has seemingly covered the entire town in its glowing light, Nat and Essie and their son Arthur all discover themselves surrounded by a love so inclusive and abiding that it seems to embrace every aspect of the American Dream that their celebration of the country’s liberty appears to symbolize. Why then, does all of this somehow ring hollow? Why does O’Neill’s comic vision of the world not quite convince one as does his otherwise tragic outlook?
     Of course, as I have previously written, there are also dark shadows that lie over works such as The Music Man and Meet Me in St. Louis as well. Both are works in which we realize reality is being transformed at the very moment it is hugged into being. These worlds no longer exist—and perhaps never did, except in our collective wishful thinking.

     Rather than featuring the realism that O’Neill’s detailed plotting seems to require, scenic designer Ralph Funicello transforms this work into a kind a gauzy fantasy play with scrims, silhouetted figures, and stark evocations of space (particularly in the beachside, moonlit meeting of Arthur and Muriel). Only at the dinner table does the family fully come into full realistic perspective, which, because of various events—including the family maid’s clumsy attempts at serving and Sid’s comic acrobatics—the children are determined to and sometimes encouraged to abandon. From the very first scene the youngest son, Tommy escapes the family circle to play with his fireworks. And soon after his elder sister, Mildred (Christina Liang) is sent away to lead him to the backyard. Others gradually move away from this realist “hearth” as well, with only Arthur left at table, having already traveled miles away through his intense involvement with his book.

     In Funicello’s beautiful set, most of the family sits out their familial encounters in isolated stations upon couches and chairs, or, in Arthur’s and Richard’s cases, in concerted escapes from family life, rather than remaining together as a unit. In short, the family members, despite their deep love and communal values, are almost always moving away and apart. The men plan to go to their annual male picnic, while the women plan  to remain at home and are only too delighted to be invited on a morning drive—one of the few times they are truly included in the male activities until the very end of the play. Although Sid has invited Lily to the evening fireworks, his drunkenness destroys their plans.

     If O’Neill’s play represents such an idealized picture of family life, accordingly, why does this family so seldom act as a unit? 
     In part, of course, the symbolic communality is a myth. If O’Neill’s world appears to be so open-minded that it seems absolutely natural, as the A.T.C. theater production has, to apply color-blind casting, there are still, within the folds of the play itself, a series of deep segregating furrows between women and men, children and adults, siblings, neighbors, and even masters and servants. Some of the deepest of these oppositions are revealed in Nat’s ineffectual attempt to explain to his son Arthur, the facts of life. In this comic, yet quite shocking speech he attempts to explain the difference, as O’Neill might describe them, between “pure” women with whom one should not have out-of-marriage sex and “tarts,” women who, Nat declares, have existed since time immemorial to service men who need sexual release. In so segregating the opposite sex, Nat also reveals some of the differences between him and his wife. And, later, together, they even quip of their own intellectual perceptions of one another and their differing expectations of their gifted son.

    Even though they both agree that he will be “great,” we see that Arthur may still have some very hard times ahead, despite his sensation at play’s end that “all’s right with the world.” Surely, given his brother’s taunts, he will have to face some difficult hazing and adventures when he attends Yale next year. Will Muriel truly wait for him to graduate? The events of this play occur in 1906, and a few years after Arthur graduates, he most certainly will discover himself serving in World War I. It is clear, that long before, he will learn facts (that Wilde was not, for example, tried for bigamy) that will change his idealized conceptions.
     Will Lily grow more bitter, Sid more self-mocking and lost? Will the seemingly open-minded world around the Miller family continue to be so or turn, as it appears the town might, to the narrow mindedness of townsmen like David McComber?

     O’Neill obviously provides no answers and does not even bother to ask some of these questions. But they are there, nonetheless, casting shadows over the dream-like end of this playwright’s comic masterwork. The characters, after all, are standing in the moonlight, not in the sun.

San Francisco, October 25, 2015


  1. Wonderful review, Douglas. Thank you! You really see the point that the SFC reviewer Robert Hurwitt totally missed. I was there for the opening. I must say I read it even more parodically than you do. The happy Comedic family doesn't have a son who is always referring to Swinburne, Hedda Gabler, Oscar Wilde. And the older brother foreshadows his counterpart in Long Day's Journey.

  2. yes Marjorie a very fine review of a play that would challenge any reviewer to go deep into.....