When I was a freshman in college, at Seattle Pacific University, for my acting class I had to pair up with another student and perform a scene. We chose the clandestine meeting between Richard and Muriel, from Eugene O’Neill’s play, Ah, Wilderness. Being 18, and fanatical, I had little about myself to change to portray the character of Richard. All I remember about the notes from our acting instructor was “This is Eugene O’Neill, not Neil Simon.” Thus, when I saw that Arena Stage would produce Ah, Wilderness, I was ready to go to figure out the difference.
Recently, I had a conversation with several clients about how we use humor as a coping technique. The initial ideas that they presented were that humor could break the ice with new people, reduce tension in situations, and distract people who were upset before a situation got out of hand. All of these are potentially productive ways of using humor. We also explored when humor backfires: when someone mis-reads the audience, resulting in insulting or offending someone; when someone uses the sarcasm or ridicule, appearing as a joke, to belittle someone; when someone tries to hide distress by making light of a situation. We talked about how, as a culture we embed difficult topics into funny stories, in our movies and TV sit-com’s. Humor can be used in many ways.
Of course, the difficulty with the theatre is that “comedy” can be funny lines, but more traditionally is referring to the structure of the play. Comedies resolve the conflict through the restoration of the social unit, usually a marriage or joining of a couple. In tragedies, which can also have funny sections, the conflict results in destruction, before the greater social harmony can be restored. The most recent production of Hamlet that we saw was masterfully funny. The actors played the irony of Shakespeare’s lines, while we all watch helplessly to prevent the royal family’s destruction. We had as many laughs as trembles.
When I want a good laugh, I am likely to watch something from the Marx Brothers, or Dick Van Dyke, or Neil Simon, say, The Odd Couple (I am actually much more the Felix than the Oscar there). What I laugh at is how they play the humor big: the schtick. Grocho’s scheming puns and double-entendre lines, Van Dyke’s prat-falls as he trips through his front door and down into his sunken living room, Felix and Oscar’s polar opposite worldviews and lifestyles in one small apartment, are what drive the humor. Yet, behind each is bit is questions about life: how do we keep ahead of our scams and lies? how do we pick ourselves up after making a fool of ourselves? how do we forge relationships out of the necessity of circumstance? These contain great humor. But, this style of humor is not what I associate with Eugene O’Neill.
O’Neill is the master of early 20th century, middle-class America morose. His characters and plots are destined for their demise. Ah, Wilderness is touted, even by Arena Stage, as O’Neill’s one comedy, but throughout the play, we wait to see whether the teeter-totter will lean toward comedy or tragedy by the final scene. The question is whether the end result will occur because of the comic structure of the play or lots of good laughs that distract us from the balancing act of the play. With Arena Stage’s production, while I laughed, I laughed more out of dread of the outcome then a belly full of giggles.
First, I must review the characters and plot for those who feel anxiety at the name Eugene O’Neill. Ah, Wilderness occurs over the 4th and 5th of July, 1906, mostly in the home of a middle class family living in a costal Connecticut town. Nat and Essie Miller (Rick Foucheux & Nancy Robinette) are the middle-aged parents, who run the local newspaper and manage the home and rearing of their four children, with the help of a servant, Norah (Allison Leigh Corke) — yes, middle class families had servants in those days to tend to cleaning, cooking, and children, before we had Merry Maids, fast foods, and day-care. Their siblings, Sid Davis (Jonathan Lincoln Fried) and Lily Miller (Kimbery Schraf) are the perpetual bachelor and old-maid, who are fiercely in love, but maintain this as unrequited because of Sid’s neer-do-well habits of binge drinking and losing jobs. Here are the two ends of the teetter-toter, for we wonder throughout the play with the next generation lean toward functional social units or fall off the play equipment in a debauchery.
The younger generation of Millers, include Arthur (Davis Chandler Hasty), the Yale Man, full of himself at college, where he sows his wild-oats, so that he can devote himself to his destined bride when at home; Richard (William Patrick Riley), the bookish fanatical high school senior, who “knows” all about life from reading romantic poets and social-economic theoriests; his love, Muriel (June Schreiner), who responds to his devotion, but persuades him to be practice (a kiss is all you are getting until marriage, which will not happen until you finish college and establish your career… gosh, sounds like the Vicar’s Dad); and the two younger siblings, Mildred (Talisa Friedman) and Tommy (Thomas Langston). Richard is also visited in the back-room bar scene by the underside of middle-class life by the likes of Wint Selby and Bartender (both portrayed by James Flanagan), Belle (Pearl Rhein), and Salesman (Leo Erickson).
The play opens with the family excited about the 4th of July activities. Arthur will go to his girlfriend’s parents’ home for the evening. Lily and Sid are to go to the beach for the fireworks. Richard hopes to see Muriel and the fireworks. Tommy sets of firecrackers constantly, off and on stage. Mildred sews a flag apron. The event that threatens to off-set this idilic American day of freedom, is the club lunch party that Nat and Sid plan to attend, for this is where Sid always has one too many drinks. Sid promises Lily that he will know his limit, but she has heard this promise over too many years to believe him.
The harmony of the Miller’s drawing room unravels further when Muriel’s father storms over to challenge Nat about his fatherly control of his house. Mr. McComber (Leo Erickson) has found love poems which Richard sent to Muriel. He also leaves a note written by Muriel to Richard in which she says she never wants to see him again. Nat and we all know that this was a forced confession. Richard in his naivety believes the line and rushes in his romantic determinism to brood of his lost love. Just in time, Wint comes by asking for Arthur, for Wint has lined up a couple of “chorus girls from New Haven” for the evening and is looking for a second date. Richard devises to take Arthur’s place, for he has eleven dollars saved up.
The middle-class harmony is quiet off balance by now. The first act ends with the family dinner scene. All the planning and grace is lost when Sid returns home soused. He is all bluster, slobber, and sloppy eating habits. As the act ends, he is off to bed to sleep off his drink, Lily is off to brood over his anticipated betrayal, Richard is off to sneak over to the back room of the bar, and Nat and Essie are left to the disappointment of the family chaos. What is difficult with this act is how do you allow the lines to draw laughs without playing the jokes too big. Unfortunately, the director went for the prat-falls, which gave us an hour of unsure laughs, timing delaying pauses to let us laugh, and a group of caricatures, rather than developed characters who can finish the play. At this point, the direction of the play would leave us with Sid the drunk, Arthur the cad, Richard one penis joke after another, and Nat and Essie the baffoons. Hardy O’Neill sentiments. I think that I was starting to understand my teacher’s notes.
Fortunately, the strength of the acting overcame the weakness of the direction. In act two, the performers show their mastery in the music scene when Sid morosely tries to apologize to Lily. Nat directs Arthur and Mildred to distract us all and set a light tone with some songs. Muldred plays the piano (yes, actually plays on stage) and Arthur sings songs of the day, first a song about living life as a dream… oops… something lighter, ha, ha, a song about not going to the church because the man is already married… oops. For all the posturing of the first act, this scene played it straight, and our laughs at the awkwardness of the chosen lines was well paced and genuine. To follow up, Richard and Belle pull off the bar scene with just enough stockings, booze and brooding to believe that Richard is sincere when he pays her five dollars to not go upstairs and have sex. We believe that he recognizes his folly, but also that he respects that if she does not make the five dollars she is out her evenings income. When he stumbles into the house, we believe Sid, who waves off the other, “I know what to do”, and takes Richard upstairs to sleep off his drink.
The next day, Nat and Essie devise and debate how to punish Richard, who sleeps late. They scheme all day, evading the eventual confrontation. As one opportunity after another passes without the family members being in the same place at the same time, the punishment is the delay, which we learn is engineered by all the adults in different ways. The end result is that Richard receives another letter for Muriel, who tells him that the previous letter was written under the watch of her father, but she does truly love him and asks him to slip out and meet her at 9 p.m. on the beach.
Finally, I see my scene as it should be played, full of energy and anxiety, youthful vitality and idealism, lust overcome by passionate restraint. The resolution of the play comes after this reunion, when Nat and Richard finally have their “facts of life” discussion, in which more is not said, but all understood. Richard confesses his wrongs and clarifies what he did not do. He defends that he did not like this experience and will stay away from such behaviors and places in the future. He holds out for the purity of love, rather than the pleasure of lust. We want to believe, as Nat and Essei do that the balance has titled toward a healthy development in the next generation. But, in O’Neill’s style, the prospects for the future are only hinted to, not realized.
So, to our dilemma: how do you play comedy seriously? How do you present the humor in the near downfall of our social order? How do you avoid minimizing the complexity of people in order to get a few laughs? How do you play O’Neill straight and funny at the same time. Follow these questions and you are at risk of getting lost in a longs day’s journey into night.