Ah, Wilderness, currently showing at the Young Vic, is Eugene O’Neill’s most popular comedy. Admittedly, that’s not saying much: O’Neill’s works are famously pessimistic and tragic affairs reflecting the writer’s own struggles with depression. Even as a comedy then, Ah, Wilderness is no chucklefest.
The play revolves around the Millers who are, by today’s standards at least, a gently screwed-up family out celebrating the Fourth of July by the sea. Patriarch Nat Miller’s firm has money problems while his wife Essie has three boisterous sons on her hands and a sister still besotted with her sot of a brother-in-law Sid.
He had three Pulitzer prizes and a Nobel Prize for Literature on his packed mantelpiece by the time he came round to writing this play so we’ll forgive O’Neill his slice of some unsubtle hubris. He slyly inserts himself into this play in the form of the teenage Richard Miller, an idealistic and outspoken youth with the revolutionary zeal of a dozen Russell Brands. It can hardly be a coincidence that Dick is about as old as O’Neill was in 1906, the year that the play is set. As an adult, O’Neill became a union organiser, a good friend of Communist Labor Party of America founder John Reed and an even better friend of Reed’s wife.
Martin Marquez as Nat is the solid centre of Ah, Wilderness around which Janie Dee excels as his good wife trying to hold the household together. Dominic Rowan (Sid) blusters and blunders with Falstaffian vigour. As Richard, George Mackay gets to do enough shouting for an entire career while exposing the tender heart of this play and, by extension, O’Neill.
O’Neill’s uneasy relationships with wine and women is etched deep into this production. No doubt drawing on his battle with the bottle and his experience of tragically losing a brother to alcoholism, Sid is bluntly portrayed as the archetypal boozehound; his pivotal scene sees him turn up to a dinner party drunk and late before drinking soup from a plate and eating lobster with the shell still on. Meanwhile, a ghostly figure played by David Annen haunts much of the proceedings. He never speaks but symbolically clutches a bottle of bourbon or beer in one hand. This echo of his dead sibling as an omnipresent Banquo-like figure casts a disquieting cloud over Ah, Wilderness. Did we mention this is a comedy?
The American writer is rarely fair to the fairer sex. O’Neill was three wives deep by the time he came around to writing this play which may explain (but not excuse) how he allowed his jaded views to filter through to the script. All the adult male characters at one point or another give stereotypical and largely derogatory pronouncements on women. Of the female characters, only Essie is given more than the slightest of characterisations while all the others may as well be renamed “slut”, “lover”, or “unlucky-in-love” for all the depth O’Neill affords them. In this world, women are simple, forgiving and fickle creatures there to serve any menfolk they are lucky enough to have in their lives.
And O’Neill isn’t even done there with imprinting himself onto this tale. There’s the quoting from Oscar Wilde. And Omar Kayaam. And John Swinburne. And a history book on revolutionary France. And so forth. O’Neill spent much of his life with his nose in a book and don’t we know it. True, some of those quotes accord with the mood of the moment but none add much in the way of concrete value to the dramatic essence of the scene.
Particular praise should go to the understated set design by Dick Bird. Inspired by a Namibian ghost town, the action takes places around what starts out as a simple sandy beach below giant doorways. Later, the beach is convincingly turned into other locations like a dining room, a bar and a water pool with the sand acting as a physical metaphor for the shifting nature of the Miller family dynamics. Unintentionally, it also serves to symbolise the uneven, insubstantial and bitty nature of much of the script.
Ah, Wilderness is on at the Young Vic until 23 May. Tickets £10-£35.