Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires

Ah, Wilderness!
Hartford Stage
Review by Fred Sokol

Jaevon Williams and Brittany Anikka Liu
Photo by T Charles Erickson
Hartford Stage excels as it returns to live theater with a sweet production, through November 7th, of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!. This is a classic coming-of-age play set on July 4th, 1906. Director Melia Bensussen provides a number of imaginative touches which enhance the proceedings. Moreover, one leaves feeling that the focus is more broadly upon possibilities of human relationships for people of all ages.

First, one notes James Noone's scenic design. An artist whose settings have benefitted shows on and off Broadway and numerous regional theaters, he now creates multiple landings and tiers which provide entry and exit for the actors. Noone features window frames and inviting stairways. Without any hard walls, performers move on and off stage easily so that there's a natural fluency throughout.

Live music adds another dimension to this rendering of O'Neill's only comedy. Pianist Yan Li sits just beneath the stage throughout and nicely accompanies actors as they sing songs of the era. At one point actress Katerina McCrimmon (cast as Mildred Miller) plays her guitar and Antonio Jose Jeffries (as her brother, Arthur Miller) sings with her. The musical dimension is both diverting and delightful while costumer Olivera Gajic provides all performers with outfits which inform and delight.

The story centers around the Miller family which is based near the Connecticut shoreline, perhaps in New London. Arthur, the oldest of three brothers at 19, goes to Yale but Richard (Jaevon Williams), two years younger, might not attend. Richard, the focal point of this O'Neill as it evolves, reads Ibsen, Wilde and more—his parents Nat (Michael Boatman) and Essie (Antoinette LaVecchia) are, at best, skeptical. Lily (Natascia Diaz) is Nat's sister and McCaleb Burnett plays Sid, who is Essie's brother, a man oftentimes drunk. Lily has always had eyes for Sid but she finds his carousing dismaying and off-putting.

Richard has a girlfriend named Muriel (Brittany Anikka Liu) who becomes prominent and pivotal relatively late during this version's two hour plus running time. Whether these young people will ever realize their romantic dreams regarding one another seems problematic. They finally trade impressions, hopes and more in a boat near a beach. Before this, by the way, Richard has already spent a portion of an evening with Belle (Brittany Anikka Liu double cast here), who is a prostitute. This transgression could signal trouble.

Questions abound: Is the spotlighted young couple's prospective scenario a feel-good one? Can Richard's middle-aged parents come to terms with his behavior and decisions? Will Lily and Sid at last get together?

There are a few side stories as well and, more importantly, thematic points. Eugene O'Neill evidently did not enjoy a great deal of happiness during his boyhood and Ah, Wilderness! might represent his written opportunity to verbalize what might have been. In addition to Richard's essence and potential, this Hartford Stage depiction allows for Nat, who happens to run a local newspaper, and strong-willed Essie to muse upon their own marriage.

All of that said, a small portion of the show, due to O'Neill's scripting rather than performance, is not fully captivating. For example, a riff on bluefish is fairly mundane. Some dialogue, though, demonstrates the very best of Eugene O'Neill. During a late exchange, Nat, through catchy dialogue, attempts to explicate an aspect of human sexuality to Richard. The splendid Michael Boatman, his hands in constant motion, perfectly captures this moment.

Melia Bensussen's ethnically diverse casting works exceptionally well. People might wonder about ethnic choices for a play set in conventionally white America during the very early part of the 20th century. The answer is that the Hartford Stage actors are absolutely believable. The entire ensemble is both energized and true to character. The presentation holds to its period yet breathes freely.

Ah, Wilderness! runs through November 7, 2021, at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford CT. For tickets and information call 860-527-5151 or visit