Pegged as Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, Ah, Wilderness! is a neat balance of slapstick gags, drunken mayhem, impromptu verse recitals, and most pertinently, a grand display of how a middle-class family negotiates morality.
Set on 4th July, the Miller family are celebrating Independence Day at their beach house in Connecticut. O’Neill’s work is rendered surreal by the set design, which sees the cast vault up sand dunes, dig up prop pieces from beneath the sand and conduct domestic conversations amongst ruin-like rubble. The Miller’s weekend at their beach house is explored as a memory and the dreamlike set lends itself well to the fluidity of memory, which often skews real events and renders them changed by individual interpretation.
Despite its proclamations of being a comedy, Ah, Wilderness! delivers moments of dark, dramatic poignancy under Natalie Abrahami’s direction, marking the work as a much more complex affair. Alcoholism is a key issue of the play, unsurprising given that O’Neill was himself a heavy drinker. The devastating results that addiction can cause are explored via two characters, Richard and family fool, Sid. Sid’s on-going dependency on alcohol is much discussed by the rest of the family, deemed as being the reason he and Lily never made it as a couple. For her, it is devastating, for the audience and the remainder of the family, Sid’s drunken activities are a spectacle, and Dominic Rowan gives a fantastic drunken performance. Sid is rendered a fool, something which his beloved Lily cannot bear to watch. In the brief moments that the audience sees intoxicated Sid, we cannot help but find the humour in his drunken state: acting like children round the dinner table, the audience sniggers at Sid, our naivety hiding the more sinister revelations that wisdom brings.
Within O’Neill’s world, the characters seemed to have manufactured their own moral codes for what is acceptable, admirable or despicable. Richard Miller (George Mackay) pines after his love, Muriel McComber (Georgia Bourke), after her father forbids their relationship to continue out of fear her saintly reputation may become tarnished. This leads Richard down a path of sinful discovery as he finds himself in a brothel, liquored up and amongst debaucherous company. However, unlike Sid and more notably, Eugene O’Neill, Richard is able to reject this indulgent lifestyle and remain faithful to his true desires.
Richard’s admirable choices are one’s that perhaps O’Neill wanted for his own life. Ah, Wilderness! is a sweet serenade to the possibilities of youth, the trappings of memory and the carnage caused by those who fail to act.
Ah, Wilderness! is playing at the Young Vic until 23 May. For tickets and more information, see the Young Vic website. Photo by Johan Persson.