Ethington Brings a Slice of Americana to the Stage With ‘Ah, Wilderness!’
Review by Janie Magruder
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
In these times of lightning-speed technology, political unrest and erratic stock market behavior, it’s good to be reminded that some things never change – a mother’s devotion to her son, fireworks on the Fourth of July and the moonlight.
The Grand Canyon University theatre program does all that and more in its second performance of the Ethington Theatre Series, “Ah, Wildnerness!” The Eugene O’Neill comedy, reportedly “a sort of wishing out loud” by the Nobel laureate and playwright, opened over the weekend under the direction of Claude Pensis, dean of the College of Fine Arts and Production.
“Ah, Wilderness!” is a coming-of-age story set in the Miller household in a small New England town. It is July 4, 1906, and Richard (played by Ryan Usher), a passionate, poetry-loving young man, professes his devotion to Muriel (Laynie Nelson) through verse. He is especially enamored with “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám,” particularly the lines about a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou.
A well-intentioned but unfortunate act by Richard lands him on the wrong side of Muriel’s father, David (Eduardo Escueda), and the devastated boy becomes quite a worry for his parents, Nat (Adam Benavides) and Essie (Ashley Hines). A wounded, defiant Richard goes out on the town, over-imbibes, and returns home – sick and sad – to be put to bed by Essie’s brother, Sid (Josh Vanderpoel), who knows a thing or two about being drunk. The Millers fret and wrangle about their son’s punishment until a letter from Muriel arrives. Richard sneaks out to meet his love under stars.
Throughout the two-hour play, the wide-eyed Usher demonstrates his versatility as an actor. He convincingly plays cynical, sweet, sorrowful, noble, funny and indignant, easily eliciting giggles and sympathetic sighs from the audience.
Vanderpoel is outstanding as Sid. Most notably, in a scene around the dinner table, Sid’s hair is a vertical mess and his cheeks are flushed from liquor. Vanderpoel’s nonverbal antics are so comical that it’s difficult to pay attention to the dialogue among others seated at the table. Of course, his lines are pretty hilarious, too: “Down with spoons!” he bellows, slurping soup from his bowl.
Adding to the mealtime glee are the boisterous guffaws of Ryan Beamon, who plays the firecrackers-loving baby of the family, Tommy.
The always-terrific Benavides puts in a solid performance as the caring, introspective father, and every mother of a son will smile and nod at the way Hines admonishes her children about tape worms, humpbacks and elbows on the table.
Another star of the show is one that doesn’t say a word, but is nevertheless front-and-center to the play’s success. “Ah, Wilderness!” marks the debut of a 31-foot-diameter revolving stage built over the summer by Bill Symington, assistant dean, and his technical assistant, Jeff Jann. The stage seamlessly moves the three sets – the Miller home, the bawdy tavern and the beach where Richard meets Muriel – into the audience’s view.
Pensis and crew also have done a nice job evoking nostalgia in costumes (thanks to Nola Yergen) that include men’s driving goggles, saddle shoes and cream linen slacks and, for the womenfolk, ruffled petticoats, high necklines and broad-brimmed hats.
And about that moonlight: As the three-act play closes, Richard’s future looks as bright as the moon that is about to set, and the night is as beautiful as it has ever been. Nat recalls just a few nights as glorious, when he and Essie were young and about to be married. In the moments following, Richard see his parents in a new light and agrees, “Yes, I’ll bet those must have been wonderful nights, too. You sort of forget the moon was the same way back then—and everything.”
The final three shows of “Ah, Wilderness!” will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call the Ethington box office at 639.8880.