Ah Wilderness

Young Vic Theatre, London

© Johan Persson

© Johan Persson

If Ah Wilderness! had been written under any other name than that of its author, Eugene O’Neill, would it, I wonder, have been given a second glance?

As it is, it’s a sweetly romantic, rosey-hued look back, a coming-of-age strongly laced with autobiographical elements of the young O’Neill himself, falling in love, rebelling, visiting a house of shame and finding reconciliation with childhood sweetheart, Muriel.

For the Young Vic that prides itself not only on its internationalism but the youthfulness of its audience, it makes for perfect programming – a play that speaks to the teenage rebel, the yearning for love, the sudden, volcanic eruptions of feeling and emotion that change from minute to minute – all here in the poetic, turbulent, angst ridden figure of Richard Miller (George Mackay, excellent, the young gay  `coming out’ character in the recent film, `Pride’) spouting Oscar Wilde, Swinburne and Omar Khayyám (from which the title of the play is taken).

`A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness – Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!’

Like the son in Doris Lessing’s Each His Own Wilderness (now wonderfully revived at the Orange Tree, see previous Londongrip review), youthful cynicism, the `I’ll show them’ petulance is keenly felt but rooted in confusion, dislike, determination to shock-the-older-generation growing pains of innocence, and disappointment from being spurned by his girl-friend, Muriel, produces in him.

All of which takes some time to come to the boil for all that it only runs at under two hours. Set in a Connecticut beach house in the early 20th century, director Natalie Abrahami (director of the much admired Juliet Stevenson Happy Days in this same theatre) again finds herself up to her neck in sand. Designer Dick Bird opts for a sand-strewn setting which lifts the play beyond prosaic naturalism into something at once more abstract, timeless and memory filled.

You can almost feel the nostalgia creeping up the walls – or in O’Neill’s case more like wishful thinking, a romanticised picture of how it might have been had he had parents as understanding, wise and warm as Janie Dee’s mother, Essie and Martin Marquez’s benign newspaper owner, Nat (in the case of newspaper proprietors, now that is a bit of wishful thinking, how long since we had one of them!)

Abrahami finds moments of haunting melancholy in the minutiae of this intensely domestic, family portrait of meal-times and light parental anxiety, observed throughout by an O’Neill-like alter ego (David Annen) as if looking back on his younger self.

Described as `a comedy’, typical of O’Neill, the long shadow of alcoholism is never very far away. In the subplot, Nat’s brother, Sid (Dominic Rowan) is drinking his life away much to the fury of school-teacher Lily (Susannah Wise), who loves him but will not countenance marriage.

© Johan Persson

© Johan Persson

I loved the proto-feminist independence of spirit O’Neill gives to Lily – `now don’t you go feeling sorry for me. No you don’t’, she says to Essie. But until the final denouement, you can see why its revivals over here are rare. It’s a slight piece, made memorable here by direction, design and the performances – especially Mackay – and the glow of contentment and emotional beauty O’Neill pours into it in a kind of external healing to a soul who in reality never received the family nurturing he longed for and which he expresses here gilded with such gentle truths.

Ah Wilderness! is at the Young Vic Theatre to May 23; see www.youngvic.org.uk

First published in Londongrip, April 2015