Eugene O'Neill's Only Comedy Playing at TWS
"Ah, Wilderness!" shows for the next two weekends at the Theatre, starring a Village teen and depicting young love and a New England family's story in the early 20th century.
The writer Eugene O’Neill is called many things, among them “America’s greatest playwright.” He is not, however, often acknowledged as a funnyman—although director Richard Corley calls that an oversight.
“There’s a lot of humor in all of [O’Neill’s] work, but it isn’t always thought of that way,” Corley observed.
The Nobel laureate O’Neill did, however, just once take a stab at comedy, producing the coming-of-age tale Ah, Wilderness!, which he said depicted the idealistic childhood of which he was deprived. Corley directs the play opening at the Theatre of Western Springs on Thursday with Village resident Ryan Byrne, 14, in the lead role as Richard Miller.
Richard, an overdramatic bookworm and aspiring revolutionary firebrand, is ill-fit with his small Connecticut town of 1906 (New London, O’Neill’s own hometown), though his father Nat mostly regards his teenage rancor with amusement.
However, the father of Richard’s girlfriend Muriel is less tolerant and forces a breakup, sending Richard into despair—and into trouble that forces his family to take notice of his apparent vagrancy.
“It’s nothing like I’ve ever done before,” Byrne said of playing Richard, a role in which he must deliver several rousing quotations from famous texts (Byrne himself is less of a bibliophile.) “I’ve never had to quote somebody quoting something… I think it enlightened me more.”
Corley is making his debut directing at TWS, having served six years as Artistic Director of Madison Repertory Theatre in Wisconsin and recently having directed for theatres in New York and Arizona as well as at DePaul and UIC. He is also a playwright and translator.
He says that O’Neill writes about the “differences between our ideals and reality,” a theme consistent in Ah, Wilderness!—perhaps so in a meta way as well, as the playwright, with his difficult New London childhood, has invented a better one.
“It’s a lovely, nostalgic portrait of live in New England in 1906,” Corley said. “It shares much of the atmosphere and themes of [O’Neill’s] other work, but treats them a little more gently and with a little more forgiveness.”
Even though he doesn’t share Richard’s love of poetry, Byrne said he found plenty to identify with in his character’s teenage passion—and in the intricacies of the family that surrounds his character throughout the play.
“Looking at it from far away, you would think of the Millers as a typical family,” Byrne said. “When you get a look inside, you see how every family has a story and this one happens to be really complicated.”
Ah, Wilderness! plays at the Theatre of Western Springs on May 31 and June 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9 at 8:00 p.m., June 3, 9 and 10 at 2:30 p.m. and June 3 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the Theatre website.