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Live Arts wanders into the wilderness

Sometimes we look back to look forward. When we do, we look back through a tinted lens. This spirit of guarded nostalgia, caught between joyful reminiscence and bitter memory, frames Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness," at Live Arts now through Feb. 8.

The play takes place in Waterbury, Conn., on the Fourth of July, 1906, a time and holiday that tempt us with a view of the past as quaint and innocent. First, love is in the air in the Miller household as the family tries to celebrate the carefree holiday. Art (Adam Segaller) is the conforming beau, courting a girl the proper way. Richard (Ariel VeGodsky) is breaking the rules by filling his beloved's head with ideas from his reading of Swinburn and Wilde.

One generation up, Lily (Jeannie Jones) vacillates between giving in to the persistent marriage proposals of Sid (Larry Goldstein) and scolding the immaturity and fondness for the bottle that have kept their relationship at the "not-quite-married" stage for over a decade. Mr. and Mrs. Miller (Bill Davis and Geri Schirmer) preside, hen-like, over the household from their perches in the parlor.

As Richard tests his parents' patience and the length of Mr. McComber's (Charles Cheeseman) leash on his daughter, Muriel (Rachael Klarman), an apparently calm holiday runs its course around the Millers' dinner table. The Fourth of July provides a backdrop for the play that proves more complicated than it seems. On one level, the holiday wants to be read as simple, joyous and tidy. In his director's notes, William Rough calls the play "O'Neill's hearty celebration of the Fourth of July, with its humor and its completely genuine, un-cynical expression of what America was born for: liberty, tolerance, democracy and the free exchange of ideas."

But this is much too straightforward. As O'Neill, writing in 1932 -- after one of history's most sickening wars and during the Great Depression -- knew well, and as the late 20th and 21st centuries have taught us, too, nothing is that simple, not even patriotism. In this respect, the Fourth of July gives us a small stage for our conflicted feelings about innocence and bliss. More broadly, then, the play seems unsure whether to yield to nostalgia or recoil from its facile draw.

In other words, it asks whether the "Ah" in "Ah, Wilderness!" is a sigh or a gasp. Rough takes it as the former, as a love letter to 1906, saying that O'Neill used it to "emphasize the play's mood of nostalgia." But lurking throughout the script is the sense that the play satirizes this sentiment instead of ratifying it -- especially in the scenes with Kater Gordon and Tim Van Dyke, both of whom play an assortment of potentially subversive supporting roles (and almost overshadow the principals in the process).

We get hints that O'Neill was cognizant of the middle-class naivete of the Millers' perspective, the shallowness of the American dream and the elusiveness of the marketplace of ideas. Thus, nostalgia cuts both ways. Is O'Neill's subtitle for the play, "a comedy of recollection," a compliment or a derision? Is the act of remembering -- of walking into the wilderness of the past -- benignly comic or bitingly laughable?

The main problem with this inquiry is that it hinges almost entirely on tone and body language, and the cast has a bit of difficulty providing the subtlety that this demands. At times, it feels like someone is pulling the dialogue along with a hand crank. Many of Richard's lines, as he speaks of love and the French Revolution, spill over into melodrama. Most of all, the crises and doubts that the family faces in the course of the play seem overtly staged.

When the four male leads sing an interlude in four-part barbershop harmony, we feel at ease even during the deliberately off, minor chords that immediately precede the final note. For we know that the last chord will be resoundingly harmonious, a perfectly inevitable concord waiting to drop. The same is true of the play's conflicts. Richard's anxiety over his first love, his parents' nervousness about the disruptions that occur in their family -- these come across as straw men. For the tension in O'Neill's title to work, the actors have at least to suggest that their world might really collapse, that the final chord might not come -- even though we know it certainly will.

In all, "Wilderness" gives us a lot to laugh about and even more to ponder, if we're willing to move past the easy reading of it as just a throwback to better times. Neither the script nor the cast will slam you in the face with this complexity. But it's there, lurking just beneath the parlor rug.