WEEKEND JOURNAL; Review / Theater

Teachout, Terry. Wall Street Journal [New York, N.Y] 06 Apr 2007

Baltimore — EUGENE O’NEILL wrote only one comedy, and it’s a near- photographic negative of his greatest tragedy. First performed in 1933, “Ah, Wilderness!” is an unabashedly autobiographical play about a turn-of-the-century Irish-American family whose members include a charismatic patriarch, a sensitive young author-in-the-making and a drunken uncle. Any resemblances to “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” are strictly intentional — only this time O’Neill made it come out happy, portraying the Connecticut childhood he wished he’d had instead of the one that scarred him for life. Yet there’s nothing phony about the warmth of “Ah, Wilderness!” Like Thornton Wilder in “Our Town,” O’Neill wasn’t afraid to show us the shadows with which his not-so- imaginary New England town is dappled, and the result is a nostalgic yet emotionally complex comedy that is at once open-hearted and open- eyed.

“Ah, Wilderness!” requires four sets and a biggish cast, making it hard to produce on a shoestring and meaning that it doesn’t get done nearly as often as it should. That’s why I made a point of going down to Baltimore last weekend to see CenterStage’s revival, which I’m pleased to say is tip-top. Some of the acting is too broad, but all of it works, and Tom Bloom couldn’t be bettered as Nat Miller, the small- town newspaper editor who isn’t quite as provincial as he looks. Mr. Bloom is genial yet strong — you never feel that he’s coasting on his charm — and his performance gives the play a hard core of credibility.

CenterStage always goes out of its way to get everything right, and “Ah, Wilderness!” is an especially fine example of the company’s wide- ranging resourcefulness. O’Neill’s plays invariably run to the verbose, but Melia Bensussen, a director whose name is new to me, keeps this one bustling along with unhurried energy, while James Noone’s quick-change sets, which suggest a Grant Wood painting retouched by Mondrian, add a tart touch of modernism to the proceedings. Lawrence J. Cione, the onstage pianist and music director, tosses off a hatful of Gay ’90s ballads in engagingly flashy player-piano style, and the well-designed program, which is crammed full of smart essays about O’Neill and his times, is worth reading at least twice.

If you’re not in the habit of thinking of Baltimore as a theater town, maybe you should think again. I’ve never seen a bad show at CenterStage, and this production of “Ah, Wilderness!” is a model of what regional theater can and should be. Even if you don’t care for Eugene O’Neill — and I don’t, usually — it’s worth seeing.