“Ah, Wilderness” is a perfectly cast and performed tableau of life at the turn of the century when an upper middle-class, intellectual family, the Millers, come together for a long weekend to celebrate the country’s founding on the Fourth of July. This piece of Americana is lovely and insightful even if a bit twee when viewed in the context of some of the heavier-hitting material in the American Character series at Asolo Repertory.
The highly skilled cast inhabits their roles brilliantly. Particularly noteworthy was David Breitbarth, who gives a lived-in performance as the patriarch of the family, Nat Miller a decent man who owns the local newspaper and is always ready with a fair and measured response. He is an ideal father of four who does not give in to his wife, Essie (Denise Cormier), who wants him to punish his lovesick and well-read son, Dick Miller (Tom Harney). Harney also turns in a bravura performance as he struggles to tug his family into enlightenment quoting great and somewhat controversial literature by the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, and Oscar Wilde.
In this election season, and knowing I would soon be seeing “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, it was hard not to see “Ah, Wilderness” as the time that Trump and so many other Americans seem to want to recapture to “make America great again.” Diversity is of course noticeably and uncomfortably absent from the play save Dick’s foray to a bar where he meets a prostitute named Belle (Lisa Egan Woods). However, all of the issues, such as whether reading books about longings of the flesh and overthrow by the working classes would corrupt a young mind, or whether an alcoholic can ever be cured are tied up in a neat little bow at the end. Dick’s “punishment” for drinking heavily and spending time chatting with a prostitute (and sharing one chaste kiss) was that he had to attend Yale in the fall.
“Ah, Wilderness” is a pleasant diversion, and it ends with a wonderful commentary on young love between Dick and Muriel and the autumnal lifelong love of Essie and Nat Miller, kind and loving parents who still have an eternal flame of love for one another.
In difficult times, “Ah, Wilderness,” which was written, as Greg Leaming the Director said, as a “dream of what a family could be, a fantasy in every respect” is life affirming. “Ah, Wilderness” is playing until April 10th, so there is plenty of time to check it out. For more information, go to www.asolorep.org