'Ah, Wilderness!' showcases big, happy family

HART play to begin run Friday
By Stina Sieg | Nov 10, 2011
Photo by: Stina Sieg 'Ah, Wilderness!' focuses on the Millers, a warm, loving family. Buffy Queen (as Essie Miller) and Aaron Bridgers-Carlos (as Nat Miller) play parents to Bryan Nicholls' take on Richard Miller.

There are few dramatic themes more prevalent right now than the dysfunctional family. Bickering, unhappy parents and their sarcastic, forlorn offspring are everywhere, from theater to movies to reality TV. They are nowhere to be found, however, in Haywood Regional Theatre’s newest offering, Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!”

That’s part of what longtime HART director Wanda Taylor cherishes about the show.

“It’s just a really sweet coming-of-age story,” she said, describing a play that not only deals with gentle characters, but also a gentler time.

The piece, which unfolds over the course of two New England days, follows a happy, loving, connected family navigating life in the early 1900s. The main character is Richard Miller, a poetic and slightly introverted 16-year-old first learning the joys and vices of the world. Taylor stressed, however, that this story has something for everyone. She described the play as a “handful of snapshots,” detailing not only family life but also those inevitably awkward experiences everyone has growing up.

People should see the play, “because I think everybody’s had a first kiss. Everybody has tried to find a niche, carve out a niche in their family of origin,” she said. “And also just because it’s really funny.”

This is not to mention how poignant it is for Taylor and others who know O’Neill’s real family history. In stark contrast to the sheltered world he created for this play, his growing up was fraught with resentment, addiction and loneliness, and his own children’s upbringing wasn’t much rosier. Even so, this only comedy of his is wrapped in so much honest sweetness that it seems impossible that O’Neill never experienced anything like it.

“You just kind of fall in love with the family because they’re so real,” Taylor said.

She added that O’Neill is, after all, considered by many to be America’s greatest playwright. No wonder her cast, whom she calls “phenomenal,” seem so pleased to jump into his heartfelt world of make believe.

Bryan Nicholls, who plays the show’s teenaged main character, called the play “sweet” and “filled with with laughs,” especially when it comes to the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. Less than a decade older than his character, he can still remember all those haltering learning experiences of adolescence, especially that first “in love feeling,” he said.

He definitely understands “wanting to write poetry and wanting to woo the girl of your dreams,” the young HART veteran admitted, not so sheepishly.

As he sees it, the show’s comforting nature doesn’t dumb down the comedy but instead punches it up a notch. For the most part, he and the rest of the family are all playing the role of the straight man. The good-hearted hilariousness comes from watching the play through the prism of an audience member, especially one from the 21st century.

“We’re not playing it to be funny. This is real life to us,” he explained. “For the characters it’s not meant to be funny but for an outside observer, it’s hysterical.”

Fellow player and HART newcomer Ryan Peterson, also known as the Traveling Salesman, echoed Nicholls’ delight with the show’s innocent tone. He, too, identifies with Richard’s curious, green self.

“He reminds me of myself at that age,” Peterson said, “sort of dreamy and naive, with a lot of idealism.”

The show reminds him of good memories, and not just of his formative teenaged years. It brings back his old dream of being a professional actor, something he let go of years ago. This play marks the first time he’s been on stage in a decade — and it feels good.

“I love it,” he said. “I think it’s wonderful, and I’m having such a great time. And I just hope to be part of more productions in the future.”

As it turns out, Peterson isn’t the only one in the cast coming back to theater. Aaron Bridgers-Carlos, who plays Richard’s father, was also once a professional actor, who went as far as moving to Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City for his craft. Now a lawyer in Sylva, he had originally not even planned on trying out for the play and was just accompanying his stepdaughter, Vanessa, when Taylor coaxed into reading. In the end, both he and Vanessa got in. It’s his first role in 15 years.

“It’s really great to come back to a play that feels like everyone is putting their heart into,” he said.

He finds common ground in the play, too, but not completely in the ups and downs of its young protagonist. For him, the father of a blended family of five children, it’s a joy to be in a play that celebrates a family unit that is full of love and understanding. O’Neill may have had no model for it, but with this fantasy family, he managed to capture “the stress of parenting and the love parenting,” Bridgers-Carlos said.

While he can’t seamlessly compare his world with that of the fictional family, he explained that O’Neill wrote about the Millers in such a way that they aren’t just relatable but enviable. As Nat Miller, he makes a point to listen to his children and to understand and appreciate everything they’re going through.

“That’s kind of remarkable and wonderful,” he said.

It’s a strength of his character, he went on, and he hopes it’s a strength of his own.

“Ah, Wilderness!” will play at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Nov. 11, 12, 18 and 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.