A tender coming-of-age comedy centered on a well-adjusted family is the last thing one might expect from gloomy Gus playwright Eugene O'Neill, but A Noise Within's charming, impeccably performed revival of "Ah, Wilderness!" does stand in upbeat contrast to the nihilistic despair of his tragedies.
Set on July 4, 1906 — when O'Neill was the same age as his young adult protagonist — this loosely autobiographical play and its characters are infused with the independence, optimism and, yes, naiveté that characterized the American spirit at the turn of the 20th century. To sell the play's warmhearted nostalgia for a bygone era, Steven Robman's staging offers period authenticity, including perfectly inflected old-timey vernacular and a tuneful rendering of Tin Pan Alley standards incorporated under Jonathan Tessero's musical direction.
The wholesome members of the Miller clan at the play's center inevitably invite comparison with the Tyrones in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," which is wrapping up a run at the Geffen Playhouse. Where the latter play mercilessly dissects the hopeless dysfunctions of O'Neill's own family, "Ah, Wilderness!" presents the comforts of the one he wished he'd had.
O'Neill's alter-ego here is Richard (Matt Gall), a strapping teenage bookworm whose lofty ideals collide humorously with the real world, while his nurturing parents (Nicholas Hormann, Deborah Strang) offer gentle wisdom and support. The playwright's penchant for profound literary allusions is turned to pretension-deflating advantage as Richard pursues the girl of his dreams (Emily Goss); while the pair are cast older than their scripted ages, they radiate the whirlwind emotions of first love.
The most striking aspect of this alt-O'Neill universe is that generosity, change and growth are possible in it, even for Richard's damaged alcoholic uncle (Alan Blumenfeld). "Ah, Wilderness!" predates the author's late-career masterpieces by a decade, but it endures as a reminder that if O'Neill could manage a momentary celebration of life, well then, there's hope for all of us.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena
When: In repertory through May 20, see website for schedule
Information: (626) 356-3100, Ext. 1, or www.anoisewithin.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Follow The Times' arts team @culturemonster.