Writer: Eugene O’Neill
Director: Natalie Abrahami
Reviewer: Edie Ranvier
Eugene O’Neill, Nobel and quadruple-Pulitzer prize-winning American playwright, has 50 plays to his name; but Ah, Wilderness! is his only comedy. Yes, a comedy with a seam of darkness in it so wide that it’s constantly threatening to become a coalfield – but a comedy nonetheless.
It’s with this rare beast, unique for O’Neill and hardly ever staged in the UK, that director Natalie Abrahami has chosen to open the new season at the Young Vic. Beginning on 4th July, that most quintessentially American of dates, in a beachside house in the early 1900s, Ah, Wilderness! follows a few days in the life of the Miller family, as they navigate love, liquor and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
The play focuses on Dick Miller (George Mackay), the stroppy Swinburne-reading teenage son of the family. Drawn by his elder brother (Ashley Zhangazha) into a sleazy underworld of booze and “tarts”, Dick gets caught up in a curious coming-of-age narrative from which he – and his author – recoil at the last minute in favour of prolonged innocence.
Mackay is entirely convincing as an adolescent (teenagers don’t change much from century to century, it seems): stormy, melodramatic, residually lovable, palpably vulnerable. Janie Dee and Martin Marquez give charismatic performances as his beleaguered parents, tough but loving Essie and genial Nat, who can relate to his son but squirms at the prospect of telling him the “facts of life”. Ashley Zhangazha is slick and two-faced as Dick’s knowing elder brother Arthur, while Rory Stroud gets well-deserved laughs as little brother Tommy, setting off endless firecrackers and snubbing his mother when she makes him go to bed.
Meanwhile, Dominic Rowan adds both comedy and darkness to the night as the Millers’ wastrel friend Sid, a well-meaning alcoholic who can’t shake off his dissolute ways even though they are breaking the heart of Dick’s aunt Lily (Susannah Wise), Sid’s erstwhile fiancée. Rowan’s drunk scenes are inspired – his tabletop lobster imitation is a highlight – but Wise’s tight-lipped gentleness reminds us of the suffering that he inflicts, and the example of his wasted life lends an urgency to the choices confronting Dick.
There’s a tenderness in the way the playwright brings Dick unscathed out of the toils of femme damnée Belle (Yasmin Paige) and reunites him with his innocent sweetheart Muriel (Georgia Bourke), which recalls O’Neill’s comment that Ah Wilderness! grew out of “a nostalgia for a youth I never had.” Abrahami chooses to stage this guardian function through the intriguing, unexplained presence of David Annen.
Annen fills in some bit-parts: he’s briefly George the seedy Irish barman, and Muriel’s po-faced father David McComber. But mainly he’s just there, shadowing the Millers, who don’t seem to notice his presence. Only in the final scene, as Dick awaits his true love, do Annen and Mackay share some lines, their speech overlapping as if they share a consciousness. Is Annen Dick’s older self, mentoring recollections of his own youth? His dark moustache suggests that he may even be O’Neill himself, watching over the character who embodies the adolescence that the playwright would have liked to have. Whoever he is, his presence works – and lends the production a dreamlike, nostalgic quality which chimes with O’Neill’s own reflections on it.
That atmosphere is enhanced by Dick Bird’s inspired set design, which fills the Miller house with heaping mounds of sand, an embodiment of memory which swallows love letters and yields up poetry books and even a dinner table.
This is a thoughtful, engaging take on an unusual play, which troubles as well as amuses on its way to the consoling, temporary triumph of innocence.
Runs until 23 May | PhotoJohan Persson