'Ah, Wilderness' a family jewel
Author Eugene O'Neill's pretend family in "Ah, Wilderness" is, on the surface, a turn-of-the-century "Ozzie and Harriet." But don't expect to see Dave, Rick and Wally slurping sodas at the malt shop.
The famous O'Neill's only comedy hits head on such topics as sex and alcoholism. The play's literary and political commentary is timeless, but the humor is a bit dated as would be expected from a play written in 1933. In today's world of 24/7 instant entertainment, folks don't laugh at drunks and Irish maids the way they used to. "Ah, Wilderness" is a chuckler and HART's production gives audiences tight ensemble acting, clever lines and glorious sets and costumes.
Picture a front porch on the Fourth of July in the early 1900s. The vignette comes to life with the trials and tribulations of the Miller family, headed by HART newcomer Aaron Bridgers-Carlos as the father Nat Miller.
The lawyer from Sylva shines. Bridgers-Carlos' sharp stage presence was honed as a teenager when he garnered best high school actor honors at the Tennessee Theatre Conference. Bridgers-Carlos brings considerable talent and training to "Ah, Wilderness" and his fumbling monologue to son Richard about the dangers of loose women is a jewel. It doesn't hurt, either, that Bridgers-Carlos bears an uncanny resemblance to Academy Award-nominated actor David Strathairn.
Buffy Queen plays the family matriarch Essie Miller. In HART's production Queen is the adhesive that holds it together. The Haywood County native is a professional actress, film producer and director, and it shows. The part of Essie is sometimes played harshly and without warmth. Director Wanda Taylor collaborated with Queen to correctly craft the part with just the right dollops of affection and humor. Buffy Queen — always spot on, never over the top — is Essie.
Essie's brother, Sid, lives with the family and is usually "in his cups." Played by HART veteran Roger Magendie, he elicits laughter with every entrance. His courtship of Nat Miller's sister, Lily, who also lives with the extended family, is funny in its failure.
Newcomer Pat Monypenny plays Lily with sweetness and charm. Her lines were lost a time or two, even to those on the front row, but a few more performances will strengthen her confidence.
Gina McDaniel, playing the loose woman Belle, nailed her short, sparkling bar scene. The recent high school graduate will have theater in her future if she wants it. Also in that little gem of a scene was HART newcomer Ryan Peterson. Peterson is at home on the stage and had fun with the brief Gig Young-type second banana role. HART may have discovered a new regular.
In a small but pivotal part, WCU chemistry instructor Charles Marth made his second HART appearance, and he's a natural.
"But it's the same part as last time," Marth said later with a laugh. "I'm already typecast as an angry old man."
That may be, but Marth is a director's dream when an angry old man is called for.
Bryan Nicholls plays his first HART leading role in "Ah, Wilderness" — a young man in love with Muriel who may or may not return his affection. The part is difficult. Its many pages of dialogue require emotions to turn on a dime. Nicholls delivers in spades. The spotlight loves him, and with each new challenge, his love of theater shines through.
Nicholls, Peterson and Marth sing in the choir at St. Andrew's-on-the-Hill Episcopal Church in Canton.
The talented cast is rounded out by husband and wife Chase and Kathryn Wells,Vanessa Moss, Jacob Hunt, Alice Ziegler, Miles Rice and Tom Dewees.
O'Neill is considered one of the world's greatest playwrights. "Ah, Wilderness" has often been described as the life O'Neill would like to have lived as a young man. Go see it at HART and enjoy a stellar cast as they present a quirky look at a simpler time that might not have been so simple at that.
“Ah, Wilderness!” will conclude its run this weekend, with shows at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 18-19 and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20. For more information and tickets, call the HART box office at 456-6322 from 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Sunday. All performances are at the Performing Arts Center Theatre, 250 Pigeon St. in Waynesville.