Southern Miss Theatre Department kicked off the spring season with the late, early 20th-century American playwright Eugene O’Neil’s comedy “Ah, Wilderness!”
Set in 1906, the play follows the story of a young, well-read adult named Richard Miller, a few months from entering Yale and hopelessly in love. We follow the Miller clan as Richard and his family must learn to deal with heartache, purpose and ultimately what it means to love and be there for someone.
The set design by Professor Stephen Judd was a true marvel with a vast backdrop depiction of a grand lake with a mountain in the distance on a blue, partly cloudy day. The period furniture for Richard’s home was fitting with all aged wooden tables, chairs and white drapery. Yet, the real eye-catcher was the tiny white, red-lined boat upstage left, a beautiful embodiment of the optimism and hope of the play’s message. The set invoked the idealistic, hopeful nature of pre-World War I America.
The lighting design by graduate student Katy Baronich was well utilized and delivered with provoking that dream-like atmosphere, helping the audience keep an understanding of time with the way the backdrop was lit, making the landscape transition from a dawning morning into dusk. The whimsical, soothing piano compositions by sound designer and grad student Caleb Garner were effective at keeping the audience engaged in the downtime. This was a performance that wanted its audience to vibe with the show’s atmosphere before a line was even uttered.
The biggest aid to this production, though, was that of the performance of David Neely as character Richard Miller. It is a real pity that Neely will be graduating this semester, as he showed a true understanding of what it meant to slip into a character with this performance. After his performance as the cruel, spitting mean antagonist Ceaser in “Gem of The Ocean” last semester, this transition to a young, hard-headed, poet-quoting lover shows the depths this actor has. His sincerity especially shines whenever Richard is quoting dense poetry. It could have very easily come off as someone mechanically reciting Shakespeare, yet Neely’s vulnerability allowed the crowd to listen to him without question.
Other cast standouts were Chris Cooper as the audience’s favorite drunk, Syd Davis. Cooper played into the comedy of the role superbly with great comedic timing, while never undercutting the rather tragic addiction Syd struggles with. Elizabeth Boykin also stood out as the domineering yet loving mother Essie Miller. Despite being a bit of an antagonistic force throughout the play, Boykin showed her love and reverence for the character with wit and subtlety, delivering some really sharp lines. This performance was at its peak, though, as an ensemble. Each scene with the entire family shows the energy and chemistry in the cast.
Show director Louis Rackoff explained that picking “Ah, Wilderness!” tied into the current state of the world.
“This world that we live in, where there is so much really tough news every day. From somewhere, or some corner of the world or nearby. I think a good theatre season needs to have a play in it, or even more than one play, that celebrates life and celebrates joy and kindness, giving and love,” Rackoff said.
“Ah, Wilderness!” is a living portrayal of the American Dream. The play itself challenges that campy idealism as outside forces squeeze on the family, yet it is in their undying love and support for each other that they persevere and love is allowed to win at the end.
It is the ideal story for this month of love and a great beginning to a season.