Ah, Wilderness!

Eugene O'Neill
Young Vic Theatre

George MacKay Credit: Johan Persson
The Company Credit: Johan Persson
George MacKay Janie Dee and Martin Marquez Credit: Johan Persson

Ah, Wilderness! is a deceptive play. This comedy, written retrospectively in 1933, seems to be a young man's experiment in writing autobiography for the stage but has hidden depths in its sensitive portrayal of ordinary folk.

George MacKay, whose stage experience to date has been limited, makes much of the O'Neill figure, Richard, although in this version the playwright also has an alter ego in the form of a silent authorial observer.

The lad is a dreamy poet with a good mind who is coming of age rather too swiftly for his own good or the sanity of his loving parents. As a would-be anarchist and romantic, Dick is in thrall to the wrong kind of “dirty” writers.

No respectable mother or potential father-in-law could countenance Wilde, Shaw, Ibsen or, worst of all, Swinburne, let alone Omar Khayyám.

As a result, the high school boy is at risk of losing the love of his life, sweet Muriel, played by Georgia Bourke.

The drama commences on the Fourth of July 1906, as the extended family gathers to celebrate their country's independence.

Designer Dick Bird threatens to steal the thunder from Natalie Abrahami and her cast by setting the action on a beach in front of a dilapidated wooden house or cabin. The sand is a distraction but, when the downstage area begins flooding to spice up a pivotal scene of great beauty, the scenic design almost becomes an additional character.

Before that, the Miller family, ruled by Martin Marquez as kindly newspaper proprietor Nat and Janie Dee playing frumpy, grumpy Essie, are presented warts and all.

Richard is the middle of three boys, his siblings respectively a Yale-educated waster in the making and young, spirited pyromaniac.

They share the house with a familiar O'Neill pairing. Dominic Rowan gives a deliciously rounded performance as Sid, an intrinsically good young man who becomes hilarious in the company of liquor, while Susannah Wise portrays the long-suffering woman who loves him to distraction but refuses to marry an alcoholic.

Richard's literary tastes are the catalyst for the central story, threatening his happy future with Muriel thanks to her angry father, an artless man who feels threatened by left-leaning bohemians.

A night on the town is depressingly realistic, nobody profiting from one of those experiences that every youngster needs to try once but the more intelligent feel no need to repeat.

Ah, Wilderness! peaks in the final minutes of a 1¾-hour running time as the Millers begin to see the prospect of a happy future for all of the main players in this drama.

This is where the staging takes on additional significance, guaranteeing that the hearts of every audience member will have been suitably warmed (without the need for any artificial intoxicants).

Reviewer: Philip Fisher