As one of Eugene O'Neill's lesser known works, 'Ah, Wilderness' is by no means a classic play. Unfinished in tone, uneven in structure and a mix of under-developed characters make it seem like a blueprint for a later and greater work, and it reads like a scrapbook idea of something that had the potential to be something much bolder.
Whilst it's certainly lighter and more comic in tone than his later masterpiece 'Long Day's Journey Into Night', it's an odd choice of programming for any theatre, and the Young Vic is no exception. Compared to last season's outings of fellow American Greats - Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams - the flaws in O'Neill's domestic drama seem ever more present. The piece doesn't feel in any way finished, and rather than offer a rounded and developed domestic drama, you're instead left feeling like it's a collectors item. If 'Long Day's Journey' is the A side on the album, 'Ah, Wilderness!' is certainly the B side.
That's not to say there isn't much to enjoy in the visually stunning production boldly directed by Natalie Abrahami. The attempt to turn it into a memory play is a move made I can only imagine to justify re looking at the production and I'm not convinced that it was overall successful. David Annen plays the shadow of O'Neill watching the drama, ever present in each scene as well as stepping into it on occasion to play the colourful set of ensemble characters. This convention works less well, as Abrahami hasn't made the reasoning for each move clear enough. As the drama unfolds we see O'Neill undress and seem physically affected by it, which helps the play resonate in an autobiographical sense, as themes of alcoholism, addiction and suicide are ones that followed him his whole life.
The acting is glorious on all fronts and raises the game of the entire production. Janie Dee plays Essie Miller with the correct level of frustration as she struggles to keep the house in order amongst the drinking, firecrackers and teenage rebellion. George Mackay is an outstanding Richard Miller, holding the narrative crux as he juggles his intellectual aspirations with hometown love. It is his relationship with his father Nat (a well balanced Martin Marquez) that provides the most touching moments and feels the truest to life.
Coupled with a stunning visual design by Dick Bird which serves as both exterior and interior of the family's Connecticut summer house, we see how tons of sand takes over the whole house on this cool July 4th weekend. An effective visual with water is expertly executed and gives a calming yet authorative feel to the final scenes, mirrored in the soothing pastel tones of both set and costume that keep everything feeling particularly mellow.
Stand out supporting performances from Ashley Zhangazha prove once again why he is one of the most exciting actors of his generation, with the entire cast matching the subtly that O'Neill's text demands, yet also allowing their often undeveloped characters rise to the surface. I found myself most interested in the mournful character of Lily Miller, the self confessed 'Old Maid' who keeps refusing marriage, yet despite Susannah Wise's striking performance, she is ultimately let down by the text.
What is in essence a subtle domestic drama is presented more as an expressionist exploration of family life that often hinders the audience from getting to the very core of the text. Whilst there was much to enjoy within the production, I found myself unsatisfied by O'Neill's sketch.