While it's certain that Eugene O'Neill influenced his share of brooding, morose playwrights known for dyspeptic plays on the human condition, it's also possible that the Bard of Tao House had a major effect on comedy, too.
O'Neill was not living in Tao House -- his hillside home in Danville -- when he wrote "Ah, Wilderness!" but it's still a fitting play to be presented here as part of this month's annual O'Neill Festival. In many ways, "Wilderness" is a happy version of the playwright's biographical masterpiece, "Long Day's Journey Into Night," which O'Neill did write at Tao House. He said the comedy reflected the sort of childhood he wished he'd had.
While "Ah, Wilderness!" is the only comedy O'Neill wrote, it is a doozy, and it introduced many of the comic devices that have become commonplace in movies and TV sitcoms. When it was written in 1931, however, the comedy conceits were all new, inspiring shows from the "Andy Hardy" movies to "Leave it to Beaver" and beyond. At least that's the impression created by the elegant festival production of "Wilderness" staged by Role Players Ensemble. It is currently playing in Danville's Village Theatre.
The show, staged on a remarkably flexible set by Bo Golden and Ryan Terry that moves from the home of the Miller family to a dive bar and several places outdoors, takes place July 4, 1906, as young Richard Miller (Dustin Katz) is enjoying the summer before his freshman year at Yale.
While rebellion is on Richard's mind, his major is focus is on Muriel McComber (Janette Wallen), the girl next door with whom he is smitten. The affection is mutual, and all is peachy until her father, hotheaded David McComber (Craig Eychner) -- who happens to be the biggest advertiser in Nat's newspaper -- finds some of the letters Richard has written to Muriel, complete with steamy book passages.
He forbids his daughter from any further communication with Richard, then instructs her to write her suitor a letter saying that she never wants to see him again under any circumstances.
Holiday firecrackers aren't the only explosives going off in the neighborhood. Richard is distraught -- something that isn't helped by his teasing siblings, brothers Arthur and Tommy (Alex Cowan and Francois Barrilleaux) and his sister, the talented taunter Mildred (Katy Hildago). It goes downhill from there, with Wint Selby, Arthur's classmate at Yale, inviting Richard to fill in for his older brother on a visit to a local dive bar, where he has arranged for two prostitutes, including Norah (Eden Neuendorf), who tries to lead the young man astray.
The piece plays out smoothly as the story moves toward a happy ending. This is due in part to director Eric Fraisher Hayes' work -- particularly in a wildly hilarious dinner scene where we get to know drunken Uncle Sid (Michael Sally), who is also intoxicated by Nat's sister, Lilly (Sarah Sloan), a more straight-laced woman.
The performances are well done all around, with some particularly nice touches by Katz in an effective portrayal of a lovesick teen; by Tieck and Sale, who make a delightful and completely believable couple; and by Sally and Sloan, together and separately in some great scenes. The siblings are extremely well-played, particularly by Hidalgo, who makes for a frighteningly realistic younger sister.
Neuendorf is terrific as both the prostitute and the Irish maid in the Miller home, giving two attention-grabbing performances.
Actors and audiences are fortunate that the roles in "Wilderness" were created by a master like O'Neill. Despite its light nature, "Ah, Wilderness!" offers some meaty characters with depth. This is poses not only a challenge for the performers, but a chance for audiences to see something new, how O'Neill creates something he's not much known for -- comedy.
By Eugene O'Neill, directed by Eric Fraisher Hayes for Role Players Ensemble
Through: Sept. 22
Where: Village Theatre,
233 Front St., Danville
Running time: 2 hours,
Tickets: $20-$28, 925-314-3400 or www.villagetheatreshows.com.