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Ah, Wilderness!

Ashley Zhangazha and Susannah Wise in Ah, Wilderness! at the Young Vic. Photo: Johan Persson Ashley Zhangazha and Susannah Wise in Ah, Wilderness! at the Young Vic. Photo: Johan Persson

Eugene O’Neill’s one intentional comedy is a love letter to a specific place and time – New England in 1906.

It was, in O’Neill’s charitable memory, a setting in which innocence could truly exist and be spoken of without irony, when young love was filtered through the words and passions of barely-understood poetry, when family warmth and forgiveness could embrace all, and when the wildest reaches of a teenager’s rebellious imagination could extend no further than an immediately regretted drunken night.

So precise is the world of O’Neill’s text that director Natalie Abrahami and designer Dick Bird seem openly perverse in their determination to subvert it. Bird inexplicably sets the play in the sand-covered ruins of an African temple, while a jumble of accents and anachronistic costumes among the characters further separates the play onstage from O’Neill’s tightly-defined locale.

And even further distancing reduces the entire performance to a memory as the silent figure of the adult O’Neill hovers about the action, remembering, taking notes and preparing to write the very play we’re watching.

That some of O’Neill’s vision of the characters and the world and time they inhabit comes through all these barriers is largely to be credited to the warm and rounded performances of the central cast.

George Mackay captures the essential and attractive innocence of the teenage rebel determined to see himself as political radical and decadent poet, while Janie Dee and Martin Marquez allow us to see the warmth and wisdom that O’Neill chose to believe even the most conventional of middle-class parents were capable of over a century ago.

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The warmth of Eugene O'Neill's one comedy survives design elements seemingly determined to subvert it