Some people dismiss Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! as simple-minded and inconsistent with the greatness of his other work. Maybe, having witnessed productions which fail to do it justice, they haven't been able to see and hear how well he wrote the play. Playhouse Rep director Robert Miller and an excellent cast, however, make this charmer sparkle with understanding and truth.
While O'Neill's turbulent, addiction-immersed life certainly underpinned the dark nature of other efforts, Ah, Wilderness! must not be considered an accident. Following two Pulitzers, this, his 15th play, is consistent with what he'd already done: write good plays.
Ah, Wilderness! is set in 1906, when Nat Miller's family meets to celebrate Independence Day. His 17-year-old son, Richard, is independent, thinking for himself, educating himself. He's also passionate about Muriel, a girl his age. When Muriel breaks off their burgeoning relationship, he sets out on his own, ends up in a bar, gets drunk and invites danger by connecting with a loose woman named Belle. Richard's uncle Sid, meanwhile, is well known for taking equal risks. Nat, a wise, sometimes forceful head of the family, strongly disapproves and fears for the worst, while Richard's mother, Essie, turns out to be a softie, concerned most about her young son's need for solace and comfort.
The characters are from a bygone, perhaps oversimplified era; given that this play is called a comedy, less gifted artists could push too hard for laughs or too-obvious style. But Miller and his performers find and epitomize sweetness and truth, never forcing, never overplaying.
The performances make clear that O'Neill wrote these people with thorough perception. Joel Ripka's version of Richard has all the right innocence, foolishness and vulnerability. As Nat, Larry John Meyers projects every dimension in perfect balance, earnestly struggling to be a strong and good father. Penelope Miller Lindblom makes Essie equally believable and human, while Philip Winters plays Sid with expert lightness and timing, making his moments appealing and genuine.
In a smaller role, as Belle, Erica Highberg is exceptional at finding the shameful sorrow beneath the squalid exterior, suggesting echoes of O'Neill's Anna Christie. The playing of other Pittsburgh artists adds to the depth of this production, John Amplas, Jarrod DiGiorgi and Daniel Krell standing out among them.
Everyone, in short, gives this period nostalgia piece the tone and dimension it deserves. As a start to Pittsburgh Playhouse Repertory Company's new season, it offers hope for other fine things to come.
Ah, Wilderness! continues through Sept. 23. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-621-4445 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com