My first acting experience was in 1994, as a boy stealing a pie in The Sheepskin Revue, an annual production accompanying the Scio Lamb and Wool Fair, in which I was a regular participant for most of the next 10 years. The shows usually followed a basic formula of earnestly corny, barely rehearsed comedy with a historical theme, accompanied by period-appropriate music. Scioans loved it. I tell you this only because the best way I can describe Artists Rep's production of Eugene O'Neill's only comedy is that it is very much in the style of The Sheepskin Revue, and that this is a good thing.
Ah, Wilderness!, which premiered at the beginning of the Depression, is set in a small New England city in 1906, on the Fourth of July. It was a period comedy, reflecting nostalgically on the innocence of simpler days, when it was written; 77 years later, its sitcom-style gag lines read as bizarre. "Son, if I didn't know it was you talking," a father (Michael Fisher-Welsh) quips to his newly socialist 17-year-old son (Philip Orazio), "I'd think we had Emma Goldman with us." Ha?
Director Pat Patton shucks this corn by embracing it, staging the play before a false proscenium and a false brick wall adorned with theatrical detritus, unsubtly reminding the audience that we are watching a performance. The actors are self-consciously actorly in their performances. They move the props themselves. It is Artists Rep's production of a Sheepskin Revue performance of O'Neill's comedy, and it is surprisingly excellent.
A more serious-minded approach to the script would be unbearable. The story, about young love and middle-aged love and parental love, is pure sap. The characters (surly teen, hard-drinking reporter, flashy Yale man, etc.) appear at first glance to be cartoons. At one point a bartender actually says, "damn lousy tramps is always getting this joint in dutch." But this is O'Neill after all, and there is real life hiding underneath the clichés, brought out by excellent performances by Don Alder (in a masterly drunk scene) and Orazio, who gives us the finest distillation of teenage melancholy since Rushmore.
Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., 241-1278. 7:30 pm Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 pm Sundays, 11 am Wednesday, Sept. 29. Closes Oct. 10. $25-$47.