Although it was written several years earlier, "Ah, Wilderness!", Eugene O'Neill's only full-length comedy, is essentially the flip side of "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
Instead of being dark and brooding, "Ah, Wilderness!" is a light reverie. You might think of it as "Long Day's Journey Through Rose-colored Glasses."
And, as Theatre Hopkins' annual outdoor production at Evergreen House, it's also short. Director Suzanne Pratt has trimmed it down to its sweet essence -- approximately 90 minutes of idyllic, small-town American life.
As she has in other recent productions at Evergreen, Ms. Pratt makes the most of the verdant meadow. For starters, she has moved the primary action out of the parlor and onto the porch, which is conveniently framed by an honest-to-goodness tree. A scene at a seedy hotel bar is staged at the opposite end of the meadow (audience members turn their chairs at the appropriate time). And a brief, romantic interlude on a beach takes place at a pier located off to one side and between the other two playing areas.
A coming-of-age story built around what O'Neill called "a nostalgia for a youth I never had," the play focuses on XTC 17-year-old Richard Miller. In love for the first time, young Richard -- an avid reader of such naughty authors as Swinburne, Shaw and Wilde -- has been sending florid love letters to 15-year-old Muriel, whose outraged father calls a halt to the romance.
As Richard, Chris Eberhardt comes across a bit too young, even for this wet-behind-the-ears character. But Molly-Jane Moores is refreshingly natural in the comparatively small part of his sweetheart. Similarly, Leisa Kelley is a totally credible mischief-maker as Richard's kid sister, who serves as go-between in his little romance.
The adult members of the household exhibit hints of the Tyrones of "LongDay's Journey," or more specifically, what they might have been in happier times. Bruce Godfrey is the epitome of the wise, understanding father, though he's a bit stiff and stagy when it comes to delivering a man-to-man talk to Richard. The family's alcohol problem is consigned to his brother-in-law; played by Tom Blair, he's a jovial drunk, hardly one of the mean, addicted Tyrones.
Richard's strict but good-hearted mother and his kindly, unmarried aunt, warmly played by Marley Willard and Gina Molling, respectively, are depictions of the conventionally caring maternal presence that was missing from O'Neill's childhood. And as his older brother, Tom Seibert is a positive role model, unlike his counterpart in the later play.
Sitting outdoors at Evergreen and listening to the members of the Miller family kid each other over a picnic supper -- perhaps while indulging in a picnic yourself -- it's almost possible to pretend you're a part of those halcyon days gone by. Although those days may have been only a dream for O'Neill, Theatre Hopkins brings them to fleetingly and sweetly to life.
"Ah, Wilderness!" continues at Evergreen House Saturday and Sunday, and indoors at Shriver Hall on July 7; call 338-7159.