Also see Bill's review of Engaging Shaw
New Village Arts Theatre, which is presenting Ah, Wilderness! through August 28, has launched a season built around an ensemble of actors, designers and techs who will work together for a year. This production is the opening one of the season, and Executive Artistic Director Kristianne Kurner has chosen a work that involves every company member. All of the actors, save two, are on stage, and the two who are not (Amanda Sitton and Justin Lang) serve as director and assistant director, respectively. The play itself is an ensemble piece; as Ms. Kurner remarked at an audience talk-back following the performance I attended, "You couldn't really remove any character without changing the nature of the play." By the way, NVA is planning to host audience talk-backs after each performance, and the one I attended was quite lively.
I can understand why Ah, Wilderness! might have been picked to kick off the season, as it is, perhaps, the most innocent and optimistic play that the company will do. The idea of family seems to predominate this season, but most of the families are nontraditional and dysfunctional (Of Mice and Men, Buried Childeven Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors features a farcically dysfunctional family). This one's very traditional, and though it has its challenges, everyone ends up happy.
The play was originally written to be performed in four acts, though there is also a three-act version of it, with a running time of about three hours. The New Village Arts version is performed in two acts and runs two hours and fifteen minutes, including intermission, so considerable trimming has been done. Still, it moves along slowly as a slice of life from a time (1906) that seems far, far in the past.
The Richards family lives on Long Island Sound, Connecticut. There's father Matt (Manny Fernandes), a newspaper editor; mother Essie (Ms. Kurner); and children Arthur (John De Carlo), Richard (Kyle Lucy), Mildred (Roma Watkins), and Tommy (Jonah Gercke). Matt's sister, Lily (Dana Case), and Essie's brother, Sid (Daren Scott) live with the family, and the household is tended by a cook named Norah (Kelly Iverson). It is the Fourth of July, and the family is spending the day doing what they always do on a summer holiday.
The story centers around 17-year-old Richard, who has fallen in love with Muriel (Ms. Iverson), a neighbor girl. Threatened by Richard's attention to his daughter, Muriel's father (Jack Missett) has forced her to write a letter to Richard saying that she no longer has feelings for him. Despairing the loss of his first love, Richard allows his older brother, Arthur, to set him up to go out with Arthur's Yale classmate named Wint Selby (Adam Brick) and visit a seedy bar frequented by prostitutes. There, Richard meets Belle (Ms. Iverson, doing triple duty), who succeeds in getting him drunk but not in taking him upstairs. Richard returns home somewhat chastened and learns from Muriel that the letter was not her doing. In the end, Matt decides that Richard has been punished enough by his hangover, and at the curtain Matt and Essie share a kiss as they realize that yet another of their children has come of age.
If all this doesn't sound particularly funny to you, you'd be right. It is possible that O'Neill's 1933 audiences would find Richard's spree to be funny, as well as jokes about Uncle Sid's inability to control his drinking. In the original, Norah was stereotypically Irish and played for laughs, but Ms. Sitton has made her nearly blind in this production. Laughing at drunk and disabled people is not as socially acceptable as it once was.
So, we're left with a pleasant, if unsurprising, story about family life before the advent of entertainment media. From all accounts, it is sweet, unsophisticated, and well, a little dull, and the play reflects that reality.
The ensemble performs well together, though, and if part of the object is to bring this group of people together it fulfills its purpose. Ms. Sitton is a fine actress, and she is an actor's director. She's staged a number of "moments" for the company to work together, particularly mimed episodes that play between scenes and serve to fill in some of the relationships the characters have with each other. Of course, when you are limited to a particular group of actors, casting will not always be ideal. Mr. DeCarlo seems old for Arthur and Ms. Kerner (almost) too big a personality for Essie. Ms. Case, however, is a model of Victorian uprightness, Mr. Fernandes plays both Matt's moral strength and his doubts, and Ms. Iverson scores with her characterizations of three very different young women.
But it is Richard's play, and young Mr. Lucy handles the part with charm and an easygoing manner. His body language reads older and more experienced than Richard's character, but his amiability makes his Richard close enough for jazz.
The company's production doesn't make a case for Ah, Wilderness! as a great play. But it is an amiable start to what is likely to be an interesting season.
New Village Arts Theatre presents The Ensemble Project: Ah, Wilderness! by Eugene O'Neill. Through August 28 at the company's theatre, 2787 State Street, next to the Carlsbad Village railroad station. Tickets ($22 – 38) are available by calling the box office at 760.433.3245, or by visiting the NVA ticket site.
With Adam Brick, Dana Case, John DeCarlo, Manny Fernandes, Jonah Gercke, Kelly Iverson, Kristianne Kurner, Kyle Lucy, Jack Missett, Daren Scott, and Roma Watkins.
Directed by Amanda Sitton with Scenic Design by Tim Wallace, Lighting Design by Chris Renda, Costume Design by Dana Case and Kristianne Kurner, Sound Design by Adam Brick, Properties Design by Bonnie Durben, Assistant Director: Justin Lang, Stage Manager: Sam Sherman, Assistant Stage Manager: Carly Dellinger.
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