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In Ah Wilderness, Eugene O’Neill tackles the emotional struggles of an upper middle class family, with sibling rivalries and marital and romantic dynamics that ring true today.

Goodman Theatre’s current production struck gold, however, with Niall Cunningham - he's a TV star of Life in Pieces - in the lead role as a teenage boy struggling to establish his independence from his family, amid the discovery of romance.

The play is set on July 4, 1906, though it was written in 1932, and was said to be dashed off rather quickly by the playwriight. O’Neill is more familiar for his darker, plays like The Iceman Cometh, Mourning Becomes Electra, or Long Day’s Journey into Night. Ah Wilderness is a lighter affair, O’Neill’s only comedy and produced less frequently, it throws a different light on his mastery as a playwright.  

With a 15-member cast, Ah Wilderness centers on the tribulations of the 16-year-old Richard Miller (Niall Cunningham's role), whose fevered passions have been ignited by emotionally charged and sexually suggestive writing of Byron and Wilde. Their poetry was considered risqué in small town America. At the time the country was swept up in efforts at prohibition, driven by the rise of evangelical Protestantism and its view of saloon culture as corrupt and ungodly.

It’s a perfect summer play, set at a waterside cottage, and Ah Wilderness contrasts this young love with the unrequited passion by the teen’s Uncle, and the mature and settled love of his parents. The show is a major production, and Steve Scott’s direction is pitch perfect.

The big score, though, is Cunningham as a poetry-obsessed teenager who is driven to a night of rebellion, expressed in this case by accompanying a buddy of his older brother (Travis Knight plays that pretentious, pipe-smoking collegiate brother, Arthur Miller) to a bawdy house – where he drinks and gets himself into trouble.

Cunningham, 22 in real life, gives a most credible and informed performance to the conflicted teenager riddled with angst. He is butting against the newly found hypocrisy of everyday life, and has been driven off the edge when his young neighbor and romantic interest, Muriel McComber (Ayssette Muñoz) sends a Dear John letter. As we suspect, her father made her write it, and the two are later reconciled, with Shakespearean-flavored romantic jousting.   

The rest of the cast is evenly excellent. While the characters on some levels must play foils for Cunningham's Miller, O'Neill explores with some tenderness the seasoned love of the family patriarch (Randall Newsome as Nat Miller) and matriarch (Ora Jones is wonderful as Essie Miller), and that of the unrequited love of the maternal uncle (Larry Bates as Sid Davis) and paternal aunt (Kate Fry brings depth to Lily Miller).  

The set (Todd Rosenthal) is classic and beautifully portrays its time, while also functioning seamlessly (along with lighting by Aaron Spivey) to move us from scene to scene. Costumes (Amy Clark) are exquisitely detailed.

Ah, Wilderness!, which runs at the Goodman through July 23, shows off O'Neill's skillfulness and his ability to charm the audience. It is highly recommended.

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