“Ah, Wilderness!” at Timber Lake Playhouse
Second show already at Timber Lake Playhouse after rousing opening, “Mary Poppins”set the stage for yet another fabulous experience in the boonies of Mt. Carroll. It’s a memorable journey to the woods and a destination for great things to do this summer.
“Ah, Wilderness!” turns our attention in two acts and multiple scenes to a family celebrating a Fourth of July weekend far-removed from an era we know. It was first produced at the Guild Theatre, New York City by the Theatre Guild on October 2, 1933 – indeed a bygone era and referring to an earlier Twentieth Century era. We must stretch our imagination to capture the gist of a regular family as well as the shenanigans of a family trying to be a regular family.
Comedy in nature, the play is written by Eugene O’Neill much unlike his other creations of personal darkness and pessimism including, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “A Moon For The Misbegotten,” and “The Ice Man Cometh.” A mere glance around O’Neill’s family of disarray and dysfunction, it might question his tongue-in-cheek approach to a ‘Wilderness’ family pretending to be normal, whatever that is. The playwright might not have known himself.
Guest director for this play is Chuck Smith who comes from larger places for his sixteenth consecutive season at TLP. Historical “The Crucibil,” “Working,” “Having Our Say,” and last season’s “The Big Meal” are among his many favorites along the way. Far and wide are some of his accomplishments that are worth noting. Smith serves the Board of Trustees as well as Resident Director at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. He also serves as Resident Director at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in Sarasota, Florida.
The man clearly knows his way around the theatre. He is as fastidious about the location of a minor set piece as well as the location of an actor or actors. His style of direction may seem gentle on the surface but speaks firmly in delivery. The magic of his communication skills is a recipe for success swirled in the subtleness of mutual respect. Smith says something; it happens.
Central figure in the play’s Miller family is sixteen-year-old son Richard who comes of age with all its accompanying bumps and bruises necessary from scene to scene. As Richard, Charles Mayhew Miller begins reciting prose and gazing into the distance at each poetic turn. Actor Miller (don’t confuse which Miller) was the brief set of vibes in “Mary Poppins” whose vocal ability was noted and perhaps underused. In ‘Wilderness,’ he doesn’t sing, but shows his versatility from innocence through drunkenness and beyond. Object of his love is Muriel McComber with hearts overhead and dreams to come. Areo Keller eases into this role with all the complications that accompany rifts in the family including a disapproving father David McComber by Brad Field.
Oh, the misgivings of passionate poetry!
The Millers as head of household, Nat and Essie are package deal Pat and Patti Flaherty as special guest performers. Pat played last season’s Captain Smith in enormously successful “Titanic, the Musical” and Patti appears at TLP for the first time. It is not her first time on stage, however, as she has enjoyed roles including Lady Macbeth in “Macbeth” and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” In this role, she is fussy and confused while he huffs and puffs as newspaper editor who muses that he “can read books, too.”
Colorful character Sid Davis is played by TLP favorite guest performer Cody Jolly who proves in every scene that he can do anything, especially comedy. In his five years of hysteria, some favorite roles include “Young Frankenstein,” “Peter Pan,” and “Greater Tuna.” Whatever he plays, it seems that the role was created especially for him. His acting emanates not from simply a cerebral study, rather his entire being from top of his head to little toe. Whatever the role, he’s off and running, or even standing still and running. He is proof that some acting abilities cannot be taught.
Sid repeatedly proposes to family member Lily Miller, but she wisely turns him down year and year, though still fusses over his every move in hopes that he will reform his errant ways. Guest performer Shaina Schrooten, polite and demure in her delivery returns after her appearance last year in “Gaslight.” Nissi Shalome Smith provides strong and charismatic moves to tease and bully other family members including older brother Arthur aptly cast by Ken Singleton whose voice whether in song or script has power about him.
The dining room table is frequently a scene of drunks in any setting. Consider, for instance, the classic scenes from that long table in “Downton Abbey,” where insults and stiff rebukes are exchanged back and forth. While Sid in ‘Wilderness’ expounds upon all things ridiculous, server nervous Norah by Elya Faye Bottiger comes and goes with shaky soup entrees. She returns to TLP also as a most usable actor in resident company.
Eleven-year-old Tommy by Caleb Hinkle peppers any family crises amidst by being the “little pitcher with big ears” for hinted indiscretions in the air. And in the air, of course, is character Wint Selby. One can almost hear the drum roll of innocence lost overhead as he enters the already falling apart family. With rendezvous including alcohol and prostitutes galore, it’s another stumble in young Richard’s journey. Kieran McCabe slips easily into the role of wayward Selby as from last season’s Mr. Manningham in “Gaslight,” Bruce Ismay in “Titanic, The Musical” and Stacee Jaxx of “Rock of Ages.”
There’s always a bar scene in an O’Neill play, comedy or not. Regulars there include Bartender (Christopher Kelley), Salesman (Grant Alexander Brown), prostitute Belle (Emilie Kouatchou), and some drunk in the corner. It might be an asset to stick a couple other passed out drunks as walk-ons (stagger-ons) in that scene.
Costume design by Ryan S. Ginter observes authentic historical early twentieth century ruffles and lace and scenic design by Natalie Santoro imagines how peace in the woods is invaded by a less-than-perfect family. Lighting by Riley Wood and sound design by Colin Marshall fill out the mood of days of yore. And let us not forget the hard-working cast and crew that devote their youth and passion to Season 56!
Don’t miss comedy, “Ah, Wilderness!” opening Thursday evening June 15 and running through June 24, including three 2 p.m. matinees. Evening shows at 7:30 p.m. (No show Monday June 19.) The boonies theatre is a hop, skip and a jump to 8215 Black Oak Road, Mount Carroll.  Call the box office at (815) 244-2035 or www.timberlakeplayhouse.org for tickets, group rates and more information.  Don’t miss the cash bar before and during the show! ###