Ah, Wilderness! Is Nostalgic for Young Love and Family Life

By Kelly Gallagher ‘22
Chief Features Editor

Full of warmth, intimacy, and fun, the Department of Theatre and Dance’s production of Ah, Wilderness! is a lively retelling of a classic play. Originally performed in 1933, the play is the only comedy of American playwright Eugene O’Neill, a Nobel Prize recipient famous for his dramas. Directed by Eric Butler ‘06, this feel-good play celebrates the bliss of youth, especially the thrill of young love and the comfort of a supportive family. 

The play takes place in a small Connecticut town on July 4th and 5th of 1906, and follows teenage protagonist Richard Miller (Liam Houlihan) as he struggles to figure out romance, sex, and the other mysteries of life. Though he talks a big game about the radical literature he reads, he realizes his nativity about the world when actually confronted with real life situations. Through his first risque escapade, he comes to better understand himself and his values, independent of – but supported by – his family. The play focuses on Richard’s coming-of-age experience, but it also highlights the role his family life has in this experience. 

The play is very nostalgic for family life and romance during one’s youth. Playwright O’Neill described it as “a sort of wishing out loud. That’s the way I would have liked my childhood to have been.” As Director Eric Butler ‘06 notes in the production’s program, O’Neill’s childhood turned out very differently, crushing any hopes of an idyllic worldview and leading him to frequent the brothels of New York City. As such, O’Neill’s nostalgia is less about “how things were,” and more about “how things could have been.” 

The show isn’t necessarily nostalgic for simply an old-fashioned lifestyle, but is rather nostalgic for the support of a caring family and the nativity of a young man in love for the first time. A great example of this is the father figure, Nat Miller (Sean Sova), who stands out as an understanding parent who seeks to foster peace in his family rather than enforcing his will upon it. Unlike more archetypal father figures, Nat is more interested in understanding and guiding Richard than he is ordering him to follow certain rules of behavior. He doesn’t run the family; he’s part of it.

The play also explores the family’s acceptance of members who struggle in life. Essie Miller’s (Megan Siebecker) brother Sid Davis (John Sullivan) lives with the family, and though his boisterous behavior brings lots of laughter and life into the family’s home, his alcoholism prevents him from marrying his love interest, Lily Miller (Emily Arancio). While his shortcomings are never excused, the family never gives up on him, always welcoming him into the fold and encouraging him to improve his behavior.

Photo courtesy of Kim Fetherson ‘22

The play is rather long, clocking in at around two and a half hours, plus an intermission. Combined with its leisurely pacing, it may not appeal to everyone, but audience members who are looking for a relaxing, uplifting way to spend the evening – and aren’t in a rush to study for their next text – will likely walk away satisfied. 

Presented by the Theatre Department, students have been working since September to bring the characters and setting to life. All of the sets and costumes were made by students in the Fenwick Theatre shops. The Victorian-style costumes, hair, and makeup were meticulously arranged, making it easy to suspend one’s disbelief and time-travel to 1906. Of course, this was also thanks to the talented cast, who performed with spirit and well-deserved confidence.

Kathleen Miller ‘22 and several of her friends attended the show on opening night. Kathleen shared her enthusiasm for the show with The Spire, stating that “the creative choices made for this production elevated the entire meaning of the show to something more than just a love story.”  

Don’t miss Ah, Wilderness! on November 15 and 16, at 7:30 P.M. in Fenwick Theatre, located on the second floor of O’Kane. Tickets are $10 for campus community, $15 for the general public, and can be reserved online at https://hcahwilderness.eventbrite.com/. 

In addition, mark your calendars for the Theatre program’s upcoming performance of The Secret Life of Plants on December 5-7 at 7:30 p.m. and December 7-8 at 2:30 p.m. Written and directed by Noah Mailloux ‘20, the Alternate College Theatre production is a “bittersweet new play” that will explore “love, growth and a man’s pursuit of happiness,” according to its online blurb. It can be seen in The Pit. Admission is free but reservations are recommended. 

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