Last night I went to the Arena Stage’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!”, his only comedy. If that was the only O’Neill play you saw, you might think he was a light, cheery, nostalgic humorist—sort of an early Garrison Keillor. The show was well-cast and excellently performed—a highly enjoyable 2 hours and 40 minutes—but what will really make the play interesting to me is that I’m going to see “Long Day’s Journey into Night”—definitely NOT a comedy!—next Sunday night for the immediate contrast. Supposedly “Ah, Wilderness!” is the idealized family O’Neill wished he had grown up in, and “Long Day’s Journey…” is based on his actual family.
“Ah, Wilderness!” contains alcoholism, but it’s played (mostly) for laughs, including a hilarious dinner scene in which the drunk uncle insists that he prefers eating his lobster with the shells on. Drinking does create disappointment and a stunted life for this uncle and (tangentially) for the aunt on the other side of the family who would marry him if he only would keep his promise to quit the booze. Yet young Richard, on the brink of love and life, is pushed into one bad night out drinking and partying and after that experience, rejects that lifestyle in favor of the sweet girl next door. He has the benefit of loving model of his parents watching over him…an early version of Ward and June Cleaver.
Still, there are challenging questions simmering under the surface of what is, truly, a very charming play: how did the parents end up in such a happy situation when their siblings—presumably raised in the exact same family—did not? At the moment, Richard is discovering “evil” literature like Shaw and Ibsen and his rebellion is played as a passing phase, but are we to cheer for the idea that these ideas will “pass” from his mind? And, while we look upon Richard nostalgically, lost in the throes of young, first love, we also know all the potential bumps in the road ahead of him. His innocence is lovely—even more so as he calls himself a cynic—and while we admire and long for it, we know that our own innocence is far behind us, lost, never to be recaptured.
I’ve never seen “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” though I saw the movie long ago. In any event, I don’t think the challenging questions simmer…they explode. Can’t wait! I will report back.
Tickets for “Ah, Wilderness!” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night” at Arena Stage.
Tickets for “Strange Interlude” at Shakespeare Theatre, part of the Eugene O’Neill festival (I’m awfully tempted!).
A quick bio of Eugene O’Neill.