by Rachel Brown
Iowa City - Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! is not a show I would have ever associated with the Riverside Shakespeare Festival because, well, It's not Shakespeare. But, fear not! I hear it on good authority and from the theatre interns at Riverside that it is quite common for Shakespeare festivals to include shows that are not written by The Bard.
The 12th annual Riverside Shakespeare Festival opened this weekend with O'Neill's classic tale of young love and the American family, Ah Wilderness!. Set in a "large-small-town" in Connecticut on the 4th of July 1906, the play follows 17-year old Richard Miller and his family on a two day roller-coaster ride of young love and its trials and tribulations. Richard struggles with his innocence and idealism at the heart of a traditional American family living in a much simpler time; a time when riding in the car was a special occasion and the writings Oscar Wilde and Omar Khayyam were considered anarchist.
Christopher Peltier provided a painfully accurate portrayal of Richard, with all the innocence of a 17-year old hopeless romantic facing his first taste of heartbreak. Christopher brought forward a surprising range of emotion and tenderness to the character. It was easy for me to empathize with him.
The head of the Miller household, Nat Miller (Ron Clark) and his wife Essie Miller (Jody Hovland) are fun and full of energy. They are a delight to watch as they bicker and tease and run their family.
Jim Van Valen steals the show with his portrayal of Sid Davis, the ever-joking and often drunk brother of Essie Miller. There wasn't a moment he was on stage that he didn't command the attention of the audience, however he was conscious to not pull focus when it wasn't his job to do so.
The supporting cast, notably the actors playing the three other Miller children, Zachary Andrews (Arthur Miller), Sarah Smithton (Mildred Miller) and Sarah Smith (Tommy Miller) rounded out the show and balanced out their brother's plight with humor.
Costumes and hair for this show were everything that I would expect from a professional company. They were well designed, well made, appropriate to the time period and showcased the characters. The same can be said for the set design. It was simple, unobtrusive and well thought out, providing the flexibility to use pieces several times for different scenes. Even the scene changes were peppy and quick, something I always appreciate when seeing a show.
I truly enjoy experiencing shows at the festival stage. It brings me back to the roots of theatre and it was a wonderful setting for this show, although next time I will remember that shows start at 8 p.m. and not arrive ungodly early. However, one reward of arriving as early as I did was I was able to catch the short “Green show” put on by the theatre interns speculating whether or not William Shakespeare had time-traveled to modern times and penned Ah Wilderness! under the assumed name of Eugene O'Neill – an interesting and entertaining concept, however far-fetched.
If you are up for a feel-good comedy, please make the time to see Ah, Wilderness! at the Riverside Theatre Festival Stage in Lower City Park. Have no fear - bug spray and rain ponchos are available. The show will be playing June 29th, 30th and July 2nd, 5th, 8th and 10th while sharing space with their second show Two Gentlemen of Verona. Tickets can be ordered by phone at 319-338-7672, or at the Riverside Theatre Box Office, 213 N. Gilbert St, Iowa City.