Eugene O’Neill’s coming-of-age play “Ah, Wilderness!,” the latest production for Lansing Community College’s Theatre Department, is a universal story of a teen rebelliousness. Considering that it was written in the 1930s and is set in 1906, it may very well provide some relief to parents dealing with similar issues to realize that kids are no different today than they were 100 years ago. They fall in and out of love, do stupid things, get drunk, get sick and are really sorry the next day.
It’s the Fourth of July, and as the Miller family prepares for the day, teen son Richard (Andrew Bailiff) presents a diatribe on how the whole celebration is a farce. Having taken to reading cutting-edge literature of the era, Richard has developed an outward attitude of cynicism and disgust at everyone who isn’t him or his beloved Muriel (Becky Owens).
However, when Muriel’s father delivers a “Dear John” letter to Richard, he is wounded deeply. He masks his hurt in misogynistic cynicism, and he takes the first opportunity he can to lash back at Muriel by cavorting with a chorus girl in a bar of ill repute. Mr. and Mrs. Miller (Michael Hays and Gini Larson) fret as the hour grows late, until the inevitable drunken stumble home occurs. The Millers then vacillate between coddling and punishing Richard that evening and into the next day. Richard’s world is turned upside down yet again, when he receives a new declaration of love from Muriel, and he vacillates between cuddling and punishing her.
Because of the universal nature of the story, one imagines the creative license that a director could take with this piece. Director Andy Callis wisely chose to let the script do its job conveying the struggle between innocence and burgeoning cynicism. After the first few minutes of the play, the audience acclimates to the manners, mannerisms and affectations of the period, and familiarity seeps in. These characters are all people we know, some of whom we love and some of whom we loathe.
Ultimately, the story is about the unconditional love of parents and the intricacies of romantic relationships. A subplot about unrequited love between Mrs. Miller’s ne’er-do-well brother Sid (Jason Carlen) and his high school sweetheart Lily (Amber Walker) works as a foil for Richard and Muriel’s naïve romance and Mr. and Mrs. Miller’s rock-solid marriage.
Despite its universal nature, the play could still be a hard sell to modern audiences if the production is too mired in period perfection. There is much attention to detail in Bartley Bauer’s beautiful, detailed set; Charlotte Deardorff’s luscious costumes; and Linda Burke’s thorough prop work .
Far from upstaged or intimidated by their surroundings, the cast delivers warm, funny and often heart-wrenching performances. Bailiff does an excellent job as a teen who throws up poorly contrived defenses to try to mask his fears and insecurities.
As chorus/call girl Belle, Erin Cline lights up the stage. Aggressively pursuing Richard with alcohol, cleavage and a nasal Jersey girl accent, it’s obvious Belle, unlike Richard, has actually earned her cynical stripes in the real world.
By far the most skilled performance comes from Hays, who is naturalistic and subtle. Hays moves easily from tipsy guy “regaling” the family with tales of glory days to falteringly stern father to comforting spouse with genuine warmth.
While the play clocks in at about two and a half hours, it stays compelling enough to entertain, and the audience is rewarded with the big payoff scene near the end. Hays again shows his prowess for this role when Mr. Miller sits Richard down for the hilariously uncomfortable-yet-mandatory father-son birds-and-bees talk, which shows, while times may change, teenagers — and their parents — don’t.
Eugene O’Neill Through Nov. 14 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday LCC
Theatre, Dart Auditorium, 500 N. Capitol Ave., Lansing $5/$10 (517)