A mention of the playwright Eugene O’Neill isn’t likely to conjure thoughts of a sunny, turn-of-the-century Fourth of July.
But he wrote just such a sunny-turn-of-the-century-Fourth-of-July story, his one well-known comedy: “Ah, Wilderness!”
Next week, the Armonk Players enter that “Wilderness,” and inhabit the world of The Millers, a Connecticut family celebrating the Fourth in 1906. The show opens June 3 for a four-show run at North Castle Public Library’s Whippoorwill Hall.
“Ah, Wilderness” represents the sunny childhood that O’Neill never had, with few of the demons that would dominate O’Neill’s other autobiographical works.
Sure, an uncle battles the bottle here, but for the most part the story involves 17-year-old Richard Miller’s coming of age, as poetry and books broaden his mind and life events begin to shape him.
Keith DiBuono, who concedes he is older than the character he plays, is Richard, a young man who represents a young O’Neill.
“The whole play centers around what’s going on with Richard over these two days,” says DiBuono, the husband of director Christine DiTota.
Plenty happens on that fateful Fourth: Richard loses his girlfriend, meets a prostitute, comes home drunk, fights with his father and eventually reconciles things.
The women in Richard’s life — his sweetheart, Muriel, and the prostitute, Belle — appear in one scene each, but they represent a clear choice for the 17-year-old.
Michelle Moriarty, of Somers, plays Belle. Decades ago, Moriarty played the part of the mother, Essie, in a production at Mamaroneck High School.
Now an elementary-school teacher by day, Moriarty says playing a prostitute made for interesting sessions practicing her lines with her 10-year-old daughter.
“We have to skip over some lines and move on the the next line,” she says with a laugh.
Mary Roberts, from Pleasantville, plays Muriel, a 15-year-old in love for the first time.
“The thing about Muriel is that she’s only in one scene,” Roberts says. “There’s an arc of the scene — she goes from being excited to see him to having a fight and in the end she’s happy again.”
DiBuono says tackling O’Neill for the first time has been a revelation.
“At first glimpse, it might seem dated, but there’s a complexity to these characters,” he says. “The journey he goes on is the most complex one I’ve ever been on with a character.”
DiTota says she and the players have developed an appreciation for O’Neill’s craft in this rarely performed work.
“Some would look at it and think that it’s dated,” she says. “But when you really look at it and really understand it and really listen to what they’re saying, you’ll find that they’re saying the same things then that we’re saying now.”
There is a struggle between young and old, left and right, temperance and, well, intemperance, all playing out in one family on an American holiday.
“Richard is out to change the world,” the director says. “He’s standing up for his beliefs and his idealism with the passion of a 17-year-old, and he sees the world so differently.”
Over the course of the play, though, Richard comes to appreciate his family of quiet New Englanders who allow him to be more open to books and ideas.
Jeff Schlotman, a veteran of Westchester community theater, plays patriarch Nat Miller.
He says O’Neill artfully bridges the generations with a device as simple as a lover’s moon.
“I love how O’Neill in the last scene connects all the dots,” he says.
Roberts says the playwright gives actors plenty to work with.
“He gives so many stage directions and emotional direction for how certain lines are read,”?she says. “He saw these people as real people from his life so he knows exactly what they were feeling and tells the actor to feel that way.”
“His descriptions are sometimes longer than the dialogue on the page,” she says. “His descriptions of the scene, what he wants, what he wants them to feel, what he wants them to do, how he wants them to move or behave. You’ll get two lines of dialogue on an 8-by-10 page and it’s all in parentheses and italics.
“He’s completely descriptive. He knows every single moment that he wants. And we have to honor that. You don’t do O’Neill unless you’re going to honor him in every way.”
Where: An Armonk Players production at Whippoorwill Hall of The North Castle Public Library, 19 Whippoorwill Road East, Armonk. (Best to use the Kent Place entrance.)
When: 7:30 p.m., June 3; 8 p.m., June 4 and 5; 4 p.m., June 6.
Tickets: $18, $14 for students and seniors.
With: Daniel Burke, Daniel Carlino, Adam Cornelius, Tommy Couto, Keith DiBuono, Pia Haas, Michelle Moran Moriarty, Anne Nisenholtz, Mark Pierce, Jim Posner, Mary Roberts, Sharon Rosenthal, Julia Ryan and Jeff Schlotman. Directed by Christine DiTota.
Photos by Joe Larese/The Journal News: From left, Pia Haas as Essie Miller, Keith DiBuono as Richard Miller, Ann Nisenholtze as Aunt Lilly Miller, Sharon Rosenthal as Mildred Miller, Jeff Schlotman as Nat Miller and Mark Pierce as Sid Davis rehearse for “Ah,Wilderness!” the spring production of the Armonk Players at the North Castle Public Library’s Whippoorwill Hall.
O’Neill today, Pan tomorrow
From July 8 through Aug. 15, “Ah, Wilderness!” director Christine DiTota will play the high-flying title character in the Family Theatre production of “Peter Pan” at Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford. Her nemesis, Captain Hook, will be played at some performances by Jeff Schlotman, who plays Nat Miller in “Ah, Wilderness!” For tickets, 914-592-2222.