- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2007

“Ah, Wilderness!” could use a compass.

Eugene O’Neill’s nos- talgic comedy about youthful rebellion and familial tolerance is largely lost in the woods in a bumpy production directed by Melia Bensussen.

Some members of the cast seem to be on intimate terms with Mr. O’Neill’s wistfully autobiographical play about an idealized family living in a seaside Connecticut town in 1906.

Mr. O’Neill grew up mostly in hotels and railroad cars because his father, a famous actor, was constantly on the road. His brother, also an actor, was a career drunk, and his mother was a morphine addict. The only stable stretches were at the O’Neills’ summer home in New London, Conn. (a dandy replica of the Victorian cottage has been rendered by set designer James Noone), and many of the characters in “Ah, Wilderness!” are based on friends and relatives young Eugene encountered during those peaceful summers.

Bob Braswell indelibly captures the headstrong and hasty passions of a teenager as Richard Miller (O’Neill’s stand-in), a 16-year-old boy enthralled by the scandalous works of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Omar Khayyam. In the dual roles of Muriel, Richard’s surprisingly spunky “nice” girlfriend, and Belle, the floozy barfly who tries to corrupt him with sloe gin fizzes and smooches, Kimesia Hartz finds delicate shadings in these archetypal female characters. Timothy Andres Pabon also niftily handles the slangy patois of the era in the small role of a swell who introduces Richard to liquor and loose women.

As for Richard’s family, they appear to have first met each other shortly before curtain time. The success of “Ah, Wilderness!” depends on the warmth and sense of shared history exuded by the Miller clan. Tom Bloom conveys an amiable paternal munificence as the father, Nat, but Elizabeth Hess’ erratic delivery and maddening fluffing of lines as the mother, Essie, shatter any emergent mood of familial intimacy.

Similarly, Peter Van Wagner is touching and lively as the tippling Uncle Sid, but his performance becomes broader and more New York ethnic as time goes on until you wonder exactly how he is related to this WASPy New England family.

The rhythms are thrown off to such a point that when the Millers gather in the parlor or the dining room, you are not bathed in the glow of a loving and supportive family but glad you are sitting a safe distance away from such a strained endurance test.

Nostalgia for America in the early days of the 20th century goes just so far. Perhaps the cast will grow more comfortable in the roles until “Ah, Wilderness!” becomes an oasis of ease and contentment, but for now, the production conveys the opposite of Mr. O’Neill’s wishful vision of togetherness.

**

WHAT: “Ah, Wilderness!” by Eugene O’Neill

WHERE: Center Stage 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through April 15.

TICKETS: $10 to $60

PHONE: 410/986-4008 MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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