Trekking gently through O’Neill’s nostalgic Wilderness

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Sid Davis (Dan Hiatt, pictured in orange suit) indulges the Miller family with food gags at the dinner table in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, at ACT’s Geary Theater through Nov. 8. Below: Left to right) Lily Miller (Margo Hall), Mildred Miller (Christina Liang) and Arthur Miller (Michael McIntire) do what the Millers do: hang out in the living room. Photos by Kevin Berne

Can we agree that Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! is warm and wonderful…and weird? The sepia-tinted 1933 play is a rare light work from tragedian O’Neill, though its fantasy elements – the family O’Neill wished he had growing up rather than the more nightmarish version he depicted in Long Day’s Journey Into Night – lend it a rather sad underpinning.

It’s almost as if O’Neill strayed into Kaufman and Hart territory long enough to write the four-act play about a loving family dealing lovingly with each other and their minor crises but couldn’t quite escape the shadows long enough to completely avoid the shadows of alcoholism and devastating heartbreak.

So what feels like the prototype sitcom, all gentle rebellion, lessons learned and a fortifying hug, sends roots into the cultural ground, which decades later sprouts variations like “Family Ties” and “The Brady Bunch.” Can we really credit O’Neill for the story of a man named Brady who was busy with three boys of his own? Maybe, maybe not, but there is some shared DNA, especially in how utterly false but how utterly delightful it all feels.

American Conservatory Theater’s production of Ah, Wilderness! is a lively, lovely way to spend a little more than 2 1/2 hours in a theater. Nine of the 14 members of the cast are still students in ACT’s Master of Fine Arts Program (Class of 2016), are all solid, and it’s exciting to see them working on the big stage, especially Thomas Stagnitta as budding rebel socialist literary hound Richard Miller, who’s like a bolt of electricity on stage – believably young, believably brilliant, endearingly caught up in himself and the drama of his romance with the girl next door.

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There is some real-life drama attached to this production, which was supposed to have been directed by ACT Associate Artistic Director Mark Rucker. His untimely death in August was a devastating loss to the theater community, but, as they say, the show must go on. ACT has dedicated the entire season to his memory, and Casey Stangl, who last worked with ACT on the inaugural production at the Strand Theater, Love and Information in June.

The nostalgic tone of Stangl’s production comes through in a gauzy, dreamlike set by Ralph Funicello that renders the Connecticut home of the Miller family (as well as a seedy bar and a moon-swept beach) in the dreamy impressionism of see-through walls and only hints of reality. This is where the Millers fuss and fret. Dad (Anthony Fusco) runs the town newspaper, and he’s wise (like Mike Brady wise). Mom (Rachel Ticotin) is a fussbudget with a big heart. Uncle Sid (Dan Hiatt) is a lovable but self-loathing lush and spinster Aunt Lily (Margo Hall) had her heart broken by Uncle Sid years ago and keeps forgiving him and keeps putting her heart out there to be broken.

There are assorted other Millers – little Tommy (Brandon Francis Osborne), daughter Mildred (Christina Liang) and pretentious Yalie older brother Arthur (Michael McIntire) – but they don’t have a whole lot to do but be kid-like. Arthur gets to sing (off stage) some lovely turn-of-the-century tunes, but otherwise they come across as pretty well-adjusted young people and, frankly, aren’t that interesting.

Richard gets all the complication (and the bulk of the parental attention). He reads Wilde and Ibsen and Shaw and the The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, so he’s just overflowing with pithy quotes and potent ideas. He’s a big boy mentally and a little boy emotionally, and it’s fun to watch those two parts of him battle, especially when it comes to standing up to his dad or nervously waiting to be grounded by him.

The laughs in Ah, Wilderness are pretty gentle, and the real heat from this production comes from watching pros like Fusco, Hiatt and Hall really work to make something emotionally real happen on stage. The final burst of romance feels pretty by the numbers – that’s when the show feels most like a familiar TV show – but there’s also some sweetness that could turn cloying if the play didn’t end shortly thereafter.

Modern viewers might keep waiting for the shoe to drop – for disaster to strike, for real life to actually intervene, for the cynicism or irony we expect from our art to finally infiltrate. But none of that happens. Everybody’s happy (or reasonably not too sad), and you finally have to say, well good for them.

Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! continues in an American Conservatory Theater production through Nov. 8 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

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