East Lynne's 'Ah, Wilderness!': O'Neill in a comic, summery vein

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Brigid Harrington and Evan Smilyk in the East Lynne Theater Company production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!”

It ‘s easy to see why Ah, Wilderness! (1933) remains popular with community theaters. It has a large, 14-member cast with ages ranging from childhood to older adult, in which family struggles reach a cheerful resolution. The only comedy in Eugene O’Neill’s bleak canon, it’s set in cozy, turn-of-the-century New England and dishes out a double dose of nostalgia. We enter a lost world in which family life is pictured as being a safe cocoon. At the same time, the play may be O’Neill’s own wistful yearning for the family happiness he never knew.

Ah, Wilderness! is mainly a coming-of-age story. Teenager Richard is smitten by Muriel, the ideal girl next door. The play’s title comes from a passage in the Edward FitzGerald translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam — “and Thou/ Beside me singing in the Wilderness” — which Richard includes in a love letter. But Richard’s perfect love soon runs into obstacles he needs to overcome.

If the actors don’t endear, Ah, Wilderness! is dead in the water. Happily, they come through in East Lynne Theater Company’s production. A very youthful-looking Evan Smilyk refrains from hamming it up as his Richard goes through wild fluctuations. When Richard isn’t onstage, his parents, Essie (Emma Palzere-Rae) and Nat (Mark Lazar), are there to worry about him. Mark Lazar, a 20-year veteran of People’s Light, is truly wonderful in bringing nuance to a character almost too good to be true.

Brigid Harrington plays Muriel, while Rachel Holt handles the role of Belle, a hooker and rival for Richard’s affections. Since both have good looks and acting chops, director Gayle Stahlhuth might consider letting them alternate in these prototypical good girl/bad girl roles. Heck, it’s a long summer.

O’Neill is determined to keep the story happy-making. Alcoholic Uncle Sid (Mark Edward Lang) and spinster Aunt Lily (Alison J. Murphy) are the kind of troubled souls O’Neill’s plays usually feature. But here, they are only bit characters, puffy dark clouds that never drift to center stage to block the sunlight.

So much of Ah, Wilderness! feels familiar, because the first 40 years of television were full of the same sorts of conflicts — misunderstood kids acting out, loving parents coming to terms. You wonder whether the success of this Broadway play was an influence.

Ironically, O’Neill spent the rest of his career refuting the play’s idyllic vision. In The Iceman Cometh (1946), he sees a world of down-and-outers given over to pipe dreams. In Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) he remembers with despair his own birth family. With Ah, Wilderness!, was O’Neill just trying to make a Broadway hit, or is his play a pipe dream in its own right?

Ah, Wilderness! Through Sept. 2 at East Lynne Theater Company, First Presbyterian Church, 500 Hughes St., Cape May. Tickets: $17-$32. Information: 609-884-5898, eastlynneco@aol.com.