Resonant comedy paints boyhood the way O'Neill wished it had been

Ah, Wilderness! Play by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Arvin Brown. Starring Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst, George Hearn, Elizabeth Wilson. Eugene O'Neill's two contrasted family portraits - of the destructively embittered Tyrones and the warmly affectionate Millers - now share the Neil Simon Theatre. Jos'e Quintero's staging of ``Long Day's Journey Into Night'' has been joined by ``Ah, Wilderness!,'' as directed by Arvin Brown. Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst head the casts of both revivals, which come to Broadway from the Yale Repertory Theatre. Together, they form a distinguished contribution to the First New York International Festival of the Arts.

O'Neill once said of ``Ah, Wilderness!'' that it was ``a sort of wishing out loud. That's the way I would have liked my boyhood to have been.'' There are, to be sure, autobiographical traces throughout the play - typically in the person of 17-year-old Richard Miller (Raphael Sbarge, whose literary heroes (Shaw, Wilde, Swinburne, Ibsen, FitzGerald, etc.) O'Neill shared. Such heroes prompt self-proclaimed radical Richard to a declaration of independence for which a ``large small town'' in Connecticut is scarcely prepared, even on July 4, 1906.

Richard is saved from the consequences of his own adolescently foolish behavior both by his parents' intelligent concern and his own fundamental decency and good sense. Nat Miller (Mr. Robards) can on occasion issue the stern rebuke. But the rebuke is tempered with kindness and humor, both amply communicated by Mr. Robards. Miss Dewhurst's Essie Miller, Richard's mother, commands a whole range of not always consistent maternal emotions - from shock to motherly defensiveness and indulgence. Whatever the reaction, Miss Dewhurst helps fulfill the image of motherhood in O'Neill's nostalgically idealized family protrait.

``Ah, Wilderness!'' centers about Richard's puppy love for Muriel McComber (charming Kyra Sedgwick), daughter of the town's singularly stuffy dry-goods merchant who is newspaper publisher Miller's biggest advertiser. Richard's reaction to the letter of dismissal poor Muriel has been forced to write, his bravado ``revenge'' at a local bar, and the young folks' clandestine, moonlit reconciliation form the central narrative of ``Ah, Wilderness!'' Young Mr. Sbarge makes a sensitive and surefooted portrayer of young Richard Miller.

O'Neill was equally concerned with filling out this family portrait. The Miller offspring tease each other with gusto. Nat recites one of his oft-told anecdotes. The antics of bibulous Uncle Sid (George Hearn), Essie's brother, prove irresistible to the family gathered for the July 4th festive board. On the darker side, not even Sid's penitence and promises to reform can reconcile spinster Lily Miller (Elizabeth Wilson) to accept her longtime admirer in marriage. The relationship is delicately handled by Mr. Hearn and Miss Wilson. (Uncle Sid is a softer portrait of the self-destroyed Jamie, O'Neill's older brother.)

Such references and associations do not, however, mar the prevailing geniality of ``Ah, Wilderness!'' Whether Nat is sternly admonishing the precocious Richard or awkwardly trying to explain the facts of life, the tone of affectionate comedy predominates. And the tone is faithfully preserved in the performance staged by Arvin Brown. With two 15-minute intermissions, the evening proves long-ish, which makes the liveliness of the performance the more welcome. Besides those already mentioned, the good cast includes Campbell Scott, Jennifer Dundas, and Nicholas Tamarkin as Miller offspring, William Cain as Muriel's irate pa, Janie Macfie as the family domestic (a role in which she also serves the Tyrones), and Annie Golden as the Belle of the bar.

The mellow production was designed by Michael H. Yeargan (scenery), Jane Greenwood (costumes), and Jennifer Tipton (lighting). ``Ah, Wilderness!'' and ``Long Day's Journey Into Night'' are being performed on an irregular repertory schedule for an engagement now scheduled to run to the end of July.

John Beaufort covers New York theater for the Monitor.

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