Scenic designer Paul R. DeDoes' set for Chapman University's revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness" is barren, drab and bleak. It's a more fitting framework for his "Long Day's Journey Into Night" because, though O'Neill's design description for the two plays is identical, "Journey" is about despair and desperation, while "Wilderness" is a comedy of wishful thinking.
Whereas "Journey" tells the bitter truth about the O'Neill family, the playwright looks back in "Ah, Wilderness" through rose-colored glasses at a home life he could only imagine, with a kindly father, editor of a local newspaper; a warm and generous mother; and siblings as nice as apple pie. O'Neill's alter-ego in the play, Richard Miller, struggles to grow up the good, old-fashioned American way.
There lies the charm, and the insights, to be found in the play. Director Cherie L. Brown hasn't come across those insights in her staging. There are many moments when the Miller family looks too much like the Tyrone family in "Journey."
Their genial bickering becomes harsh and vindictive, the father's sage guidance of his son at times looks too abusive, as does Richard's mother's halfhearted insistence on Richard's punishment for minor offenses. A sharp edge to this dysfunctional family's aura is out of character with O'Neill's daydream.
On top of that, Brown, faced with the necessity of using older actors for the young roles, has them play at being children rather than allowing the audience's imagination to compensate for the age difference. In a ludicrous example, Amy Lawson's very young daughter Molly clumps around petulantly and jiggles as if she has a physical ailment. It's dishonest acting, and directing.
There are times when this flaw starts to creep into the performance of Christopher Damon as a midteen Richard, with cliched sprawling on the sofa and overdone arm swinging. Damon rises above it most of the time to good effect, particularly in his barroom scene with floozy Belle (Stephanie Farnell-Wilson) and his evening rendezvous with true love Muriel (Kimberly Kennedy Blair), both of whom are on target, within natural bounds and O'Neill's intent.
The adults surrounding Richard fare better. Peter Westenhofer is excellent as the father, especially in his gently shy scene in which he attempts to explain the facts of life to Richard. Westenhofer and Elizabeth M. Pippin, as the mother, hit the perfect balance in their final scene doing the tango--O'Neill's romantic vision of his own parents.
Andy Moran and Erin Byron are good as Richard's college-age brother and buoyant sister, and Simeon Denk is the properly subdued boarder, Sid Davis, except in his overdone drunk scene.
Alyssum D'Aoust as Miller's spinster sister is sharp-tongued and too edgy throughout, which makes Sid's long-term affection for her seem unbelievable. As the Miller maid Nora, Leandra Mary McCormick has almost as many phony tics as daughter Molly, but Raymund Manukay stands out for his naturalism and reserve as the crafty salesman who lures Belle away from a tiddly Richard.
"Ah, Wilderness," Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University, Orange. Wednesday-Saturday, 8 p.m. Ends Saturday. (714) 997-6812. $7. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.