While on vacation at the Jersey shore last week, I decided to take my family to Cape May to see the East Lynne Theater Company production of “Ah, Wilderness!”, the only comedy by the eminent American playwright Eugene O’Neill.
We parked the car, went inside The First Presbyterian Church (the company’s regular venue) and settled into our seats.
The house lights dimmed. The stage brightened. And, one by one, the characters appeared and revealed who they are and how they relate to one another. Immediately, it was apparent that the play does not take place in modern times.
The costumes, of course, provided an instant visual clue. And the conversational quirks – how people addressed each other and approached the topics they were discussing – was further indication that this tale is set in the past.
But, as it went along, I found I’d stopped focusing on the costumes or the time period, and was instead simply following along as a timeless human narrative unfolded.
A writer like Eugene O’Neill can make that happen.
And, as Gayle Stahlhuth, Artistic Director of East Lynne Theater Company told me, so can a seasonally themed story and an age-appropriate cast.
“This is a perfect summer show,” she said. “It takes place on 4th of July weekend in 1906, and opens with the family’s youngest child running into the living room and begging to be allowed to go outdoors and shoot off more firecrackers.”
That certainly sets a scene – one that could be happening today or more than 100 years ago.
As for the ages of the cast members, Stahlhuth emphasized the significance of finding actors who are close to the characters’ ages. “I feel as though directors often cast too old for the parts of teenagers.
“O’Neill was quite specific,” she said. “He not only indicated the overall family structure—two parents, four kids—but also the children’s ages.”
Fortunately, Stahlhuth had little difficulty finding actors of all ages who were interested. “People came out of the woodwork to audition.”
The two open Actors Equity Association calls drew 300+ actors. “I have never had this kind of response to any other production I’ve cast,” said Stahlhuth.
And she said that many had a particular character in mind that they hoped to play. “I talked personally to more than half of them,” she said, and often they came in saying that their “dream role” was Richard, or Essie, or Nat, or they’d played one of the younger characters in high school or college and wanted to take a shot at an adult role.
“I was also astounded by the number of email submissions we got—from several states,” she added. “And again, I think it’s because this is special to them, or in some cases, because they want to be in an O’Neill play.”
From those hundreds, 14 were selected.
“It’s a dream cast,” Stahlhuth said.
Stahlhuth has known Evan Smilyk, who plays the 17-year-old Richard Miller, since he was 8 years old, and has worked with him several times. With his casual, boy-next-door looks and manner, she considered him an ideal choice to play the role of a young man struggling with teenage growing pains.
The rest of the cast also just clicked. “The ensemble works so well together,” she said. “You really believe they’re a family.”
A scene that features a furtive meeting between the Richard and his heartthrob, Muriel, also rings true, with their conversation alternating between dreaminess and rationality.
“We’ve got young kids doing young love.”
While casting the show came together without too much effort, Stahlhuth said the music presented a challenge.
“Certain songs were mentioned in the script, and we kept those,” she said, “but there was no guidance as to what we should play between the scenes.”
“I know music from the 1890s, and I know World War I era music,” she said, “but not so much from the 1900-1910 decade.”
Stahlhuth had considered using songs composed by George M. Cohan that were popular at that time (think “You’re a Grand Old Flag” or “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”), but it just didn’t fit.
“It was too rah-rah, sort of a hard sell” she said. “This show calls for a softer sell.”
In the end, Stahlhuth chose some music by Jerome Kern and a few Scott Joplin tunes. “And, there are few surprises along the way,” she added.
The response to the show, which opened July 26 and runs through September 2, has been positive.
“Even though there are many options for entertainment in Cape May, we still get a good crowd at every performance,” Stahlhuth said. “People come because it is O’Neill, and rarely done, or they come because it’s a comedy.
“Or, maybe, with all that’s happening in the world right now, audiences just want something that’s entertaining.”
Putting on this production has been an absolute joy for Gayle Stahlhuth.
“It’s just one of the happiest experiences I have had as a producer and director,” she said. “There is so much interaction and sharing of experiences.
“This is a show that will be missed by the cast, certainly, but also by members of the community,” she said. “Many of them have already been to see the show more than once.”
East Lynne Theater Company presents, “Ah, Willderness!” through September 2 at the First Presbyterian Church, 500 Hughes St., Cape May. Shows run Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. For tickets or more information, visit www.eastlynnetheater.org or call 609-884-5898.