?Ah, Wilderness!? depicts bygone time

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Entertainment,Dan Collins

It?s July Fourth, summertime, when a young man?s fancy turns to ... socialist theory, Oscar Wilde and "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam."

Oh, yes, and to pretty young ladies, as well.

This is the setting and mindset of young Richard Miller (Bob Braswell), the teenage Ichabod Crane-ish hero of Eugene O?Neill?s lone comedic work, "Ah Wilderness!."

The title refers to the time between simpler childhood years and more clearly defined adulthood ? the wilderness of adolescence, when life is a flood of burgeoning desires and brazen idealism.

Helping Richard navigate his personal pre-World War I wilderness is his family, characters inspired from O?Neill?s own life, starting with Miller patriarch Nat (Tom Bloom), owner of the town newspaper.

Nat would be at home in the pantheon of great American television dads, akin to Robert Young?s Jim Anderson or Hugh Beaumont?s Ward Cleaver ? wise, understanding, humorous and pre-eminently paternal.

His wife, Essie (Elizabeth Hess), bookends Nat nicely, sprinkling the stage with lots of finger-waggling mothering, vacillating between seeing Robert punished for his scandalous-for-the-time reading material, her desire to protect him, and her pride in her son?s intelligence and spirit.

And just like The Beaver had Wally to provide sibling rivalry and support, Richard has younger sister Mildred (Kristen Lewis), a budding femme fatale; Arthur (Michael Zlaginger) ? think Father Knows Best?s Bud if he?d gone to Yale; and Tommy (Connor Aikin), your designated precocious tot.

Of course, it wouldn?t be an O?Neill play without a little alcoholism and emotional enabling tossed about, and these elements appear in characters Sid (Peter Van Wagner) and Lily (Gloria Biegler), now 16 years past the day she refused Sid?s marriage proposal, but still hoping Sid might eventually drop the lovable, comic drunk routine and grow up.

With his trusty tomes of Ibsen and Swinburne to guide him, Richard briefly descends into the seedy world of "real dives" with a redhead named Belle (as in Jezebel), his new teacher. Shouting sonnets to the heavens, Richard escapes by the light of the silvery moon to woo the "nice girl" of his dreams, Muriel.

It all harkens back to an age that perhaps never was, a tale that even O?Neill described as "a sort of wishing out loud," but one the audience warmly embraces, perhaps recalling their own forays into the wilderness that marks the end of innocence.

IF YOU GO

"Ah, Wilderness!"

» Venue: CenterStage?s Pearlstone Theatre, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore

» Times: Various times through April 15

» More info: 410-332-0033, www.centerstage.org

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