This gooey takeaway is essentially what you’re left with after the nearly three hours you invest in the sweet, low-grade kerfuffles spelled out in
Eugene O’Neill’s 1933 valentine to hearty turn-of-the-20th-century American family life, “Ah, Wilderness!” Nothing’s gonna harm you in this rare incidence in O’Neill’s stormy oeuvre of a play in which everything just kind of works out for the best.
It’s hard, therefore, to argue with any of the kindnesses outlined in Arena Stage’s first-class production, expertly cast and assembled on the Fichandler Stage by director Kyle Donnelly. It’s also hard to get overly excited about them.
With the opening of “Ah, Wilderness!”, Arena launches a sampling of this cornerstone dramatist’s work in conjunction with the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Still to come is Arena’s revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” and the Shakespeare’s staging of the far less frequently revived “Strange Interlude.” A selection of plays inspired by O’Neill will be interspersed, along with readings, lectures and panel discussions.
The calculation for placing “Ah, Wilderness!” in leadoff position may have been that its wholesomeness lays down the cushiest welcome mat; it’s as safe for your system as a digestive biscuit, and as well-made as a Model T. (Recall, too, that to open Arena’s refurbished complex on Sixth Street and Maine Avenue SW, artistic director Molly Smith chose another item from the nation’s breakfront of burnished classics: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 “Oklahoma!”)
Smith earned every drop of ink in that titular exclamation point through her scrupulously affectionate staging. Donnelly proves just as attentive to the more wistful exuberance represented by her play’s title. I doubt we’ll see a version of this light comedy again that attaches actors’ temperaments so acutely to their characters’ personalities. The outstanding portraiture begins with the surefire anchoring by William Patrick Riley, who plays the one absolutely pivotal role, that of young Richard Miller, the Yale-bound, would-be rebel, who sulks about the girl he loves and scandalizes his mother with anarchist sympathies and quotes of the work of the brazen Oscar Wilde.
Richard, perhaps an idealized representation of O’Neill himself — he based the “Ah, Wilderness!” family on that of one of his childhood friends in New London, Conn. — is our touchstone. His outsize disdain for his parents’ wisdom and his siblings’ presence magnifies our feelings of well-being here: We watch with knowing amusement as Richard endearingly struggles to establish his autonomy and navigate the choppy channels of young adulthood, notably through his dealings with the opposite sex.