Hartford Stage is currently presenting a loving and affectionate production of Eugene O’Neill’s play, “Ah, Wilderness!” Featuring a splendid cast and pitch perfect direction by Melia Bensussen, this show just seem to float on air from beginning to end. On James Noone’s excellent, multi-level set, the play tells the story of the Miller family, starting on the Fourth of July in 1906. “Ah, Wilderness!” focuses specifically on the character of Richard and his journey into adulthood, and Hartford Stage is blessed to have the wonderful Jaevon Williams playing the role. This production of “Ah, Wilderness!” was initially planned for 2020, but had to be delayed due to the pandemic. As it happens, this play and production serve as the perfect return to Hartford Stage, as “Ah, Wilderness!” features a fanciful and warm slice of life that will appeal to just about any theatergoer.
This staging of “Ah, Wilderness!” shines in all departments, but it is really the work of the company of actors (some whom play more than one role) that makes this show work as well as it does. The fine Michael Boatman leads the cast as the patriarch of the family, Nat Miller. As his wife, Essie, Antoinette LaVecchia is just perfect and she is especially effective early in the second act, where she seems to conduct a multi-person conversation all by herself. Katerina McCrimmon is just right as their daughter Mildred and both Myles Low and Antonio Jose Jeffries are good as two of the other members of the family, Tommy and Arthur, respectively.
Still, the role most crucial to this play is the character of Richard, and, as mentioned, Jaevon Williams excels in the part. “Ah, Wilderness!” tells his coming-of-age story, including a visit to a sleazy bar and his dealing with the ups and downs of teenage love. As it happens, he is partnered perfectly with the remarkable Brittany Anikka Liu, who believably takes on the roles of both Belle, a floozy Richard meets at the bar and then, later, Richard’s innocent and lovely girlfriend, Muriel. It is high praise to say that it truly seems like these parts are taken on by two different performers, such is the versatility and skill of Liu as an actress.
Other major characters in the play are boozy Uncle Sid, portrayed extremely well by McCaleb Burnett, including at least one very funny drunk scene, and the woman he pines for, Lily Miller, exquisitely taken on by Natascia Diaz. Their scenes together are especially touching and heartfelt and the chemistry between these actors is ideal. Also in the large cast, in supporting roles, are Stuart Rider, Annie Jean Buckley, Tanner Jones, and Joseph Adams, all of whom make their mark in the show.
In a brilliant choice, musical director and pianist Yan Li, is seen throughout the show, at the piano, which is sunken a little below the stage floor. The expert Li provides musical interludes in between scenes and some of the actors are called upon to sing bits of songs from the play’s period. Director Melia Bensussen also works terrifically with the fantastic costume designer Olivera Gajic and lighting designer Wen-ling Liao works wonders throughout the show. And it must be stated that the sound design, by Michael Bodeen and Rob Milburn, is crystal clear, making sure that the audience hears every line in Eugene O’Neill’s classic play.
“Ah, Wilderness!” is really a pleasure and it is the kind of show that will bring a smile to your lips and put a spring in your step. This warm and luminous production is light as a feather, with just about every moment ringing true. Director Bensussen and her company of actors and designers truly make this staging of “Ah, Wilderness!” positively glow. This show is most highly recommended and I doubt that Hartford Stage could have chosen a better play to welcome audiences back to their stage.
“Ah, Wilderness!” runs through November 7, 2021, at Hartford Stage, in Hartford, CT. For information and tickets, please visit http://www.hartfordstage.org.
Photo: Jaevon Williams and Brittany Anikka Liu
Photo by T. Charles Erickson