The American theater is built on tales of troubled families, and Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” might well be the grandaddy of them all. So the Goodman Theatre’s sparkling revival of O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!,” which dates from 1933 — about eight years before he penned “Long Day’s Journey” — comes as a surprising breath of fresh air and optimism.

A sweet but not saccharine family comedy, it is the portrait of an enduring marriage, adolescent angst and a long-thwarted romance. It also explores the abiding tension between the puritanical underpinnings of American society and the powerful urge to breathe free. And the superbly cast Goodman revival — shaped by the meticulous direction of Steve Scott (for whom this is a valedictory production, marking his retirement after nearly four decades with the company) — brings it to life with all the humor, pathos, heart and sheer old-fashioned goofiness it demands.

‘AH, WILDERNESS!’
Highly recommended
When: Through July 23
Where: Goodman Theater, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $20 – $75
Info: (312) 443-3800;
www.goodmantheater.com
Run time: 2 hours and
30 minutes with one intermission

Niall Cunningham plays Richard Miller and Ayssette Munoz plays his girlfriend, Muriel McComber, in the Goodman Theatre production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Set around the Fourth of July in 1906, “Ah, Wilderness!” homes in on the well-to-do Miller family, who live in a large, comfortable home on the coast of Connecticut (ideally captured in Todd Rosenthal’s angled set with its beachside setting). At its center is a winningly matched couple: newspaper publisher Nat Miller (deftly played by Randall Newsome, in a role originated by none other than George M. Cohan) and his formidable wife with the all-embracing maternal spirit, Essie (the altogether remarkable Ora Jones, whose comic timing and intonation possess a touch of genius).

The Millers have four children: the oldest son, Arthur (Travis A. Knight), a full-of-himself football star at Yale; Richard (Niall Cunningham), the O’Neill alter ego, a naive, literature-obsessed, lovesick 17-year-old with radical political ideas, who will soon follow his brother to that university; Mildred (Rochelle Therrien), his high-spirited, flirty younger sister, and Tommy (Matthew Abraham), a boy still in knee-pants. Also part of the family is Nat’s sister, Lily (Kate Fry, who captures her character’s yearning and pride to perfection), a 42-year-old unmarried schoolteacher who for many years has been pursued by Essie’s talented but profligate brother, journalist Sid Davis (Larry Bates). Lily refuses to marry Sid because of his drinking, gambling and philandering. He is the play’s most flamboyant character, and Bates does a masterful job of making him at once hugely entertaining and streaked with regret.

The play’s title is drawn from Richard’s favorite poem, the “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyam, the erotically tinged work of the Persian writer who called for “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!” And it feeds Richard’s hunger for 16-year-old Muriel McComber (Ayssette Munoz), the girl with whom he is totally smitten, and whose father has forced her to write a note of rejection. So when a pal of Arthur’s invites him to a wild evening at a local dive, the wide-eyed, heartbroken Richard sets out on what will become something of an unsentimental education as he gets drunk and is nearly seduced by a pretty, well-practiced prostitute, Belle (superbly played by Amanda Drinkall).

The play is awash in classic family scenes at the dinner table, where a fully sloshed Sid chews on lobster shells, and Essie’s years of marital subterfuge regarding bluefish is exposed, and where, in the living room, a father-and-son “facts of life” talk between Nat and Richard is a classic of avoidance and awkwardness. The mother-and-whore complex that O’Neill carried with him in every play is dealt with in lighter if no less pervasive terms, as is the destructive siren song of alcohol. There is a lively discussion of how such unbridled writers as Swinburne and Wilde can “corrupt” minds. And Richard, bursting with ideas about the meaning of freedom and justice, zestily endorses socialist ideas over capitalism.

Cunningham, with his coppery curls and lanky frame, is wholly enchanting as Richard, the brainy innocent who wears his heart on his sleeve and has a palpable hunger for experience. And Munoz suggests the sheltered yet spiky and manipulative nature of Muriel, who will turn out to be quite a piece of work should Richard ever marry her.

Along the way there are fine turns by Ricardo Gutierrez (as Muriel’s moralistic dad); Will Allan (as a racy pal of Arthur’s); Bri Sudia as the Millers’ loopy Irish maid; Joe Dempsey as a bartender and Bret Tuomi as a salesman.

The real miracle of “Ah, Wilderness!” is how it can feel light years away from the world in which we now live while at the same time capturing the essence of human behavior. To borrow a line from one Lin-Manuel Miranda, that is simply because “love is love is love.” 

Niall Cunningham (from left), Joe Dempsey, Amanda Drinkall and Bret Tuomi in the Goodman Theatre production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” (Photo: Liz Lauren)