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Review: Ah, Wilderness is sweet-tooth nostalgia

If the threat of being thrust back several generations by the Republican Party didn’t give you enough of a scare, you now have the chance to travel even further back in time, to the saccharine-sweet, gosh-darn era depicted in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness, being staged by the College of Southern Nevada’s Department of Fine Arts. Featuring a large, mostly green cast and heaps of good intention, the production has some sweet moments, but won’t likely leave you longing for bygone days.

Set at the turn of the 20th century, the play takes place on a Fourth of July holiday at the Miller home, on a charming set designed by Gary Carton, where teenaged Richard Miller, the family’s melancholy poet, is punch-drunk in love.

Better known for darker dramas like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, O’Neill’s relentlessly upbeat tale of young love is considered to be the writer’s poetic version of wishful thinking — which is sweet, in theory, but could land you in a diabetic coma if you allow its narrow vision of the world to make you overly nostalgic for an idyllic time that, let’s face it, never really existed.

As Miller, J.J. Gatesman channels his inner Jimmy Stewart, granting the play’s lead role a believable combination of earnestness and naivete as he goes from rejection by his girlfriend to experiencing a series of “coming-of-age” milestones, to returning comfortably home to the Christian family values to which this play so righteously clings. Gatesman’s genuine enthusiasm in the role of the cautiously optimistic romantic lead, coupled with the absurdly innocent portrayal of girlfriend Muriel (Morgan Peters), grants the moonlit romantic scene late in the second act a kind of fleeting tenderness one can only imagine was O’Neill’s goal for this play.

The large cast, directed by Douglas Baker, is made up mostly of CSN students in the early stages of their theatrical studies or careers, with this marking the first time onstage for a number of them. There’s plenty for them to be proud of, including the memorization of a lot of O’Neill’s dated dialogue. They will hopefully ease more comfortably into the dialect, slow it down a bit and eliminate some of the slips and stumbles challenging the production.

AH, WILDERNESS Friday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m.; Nicholas J. Horn Theatre at CSN, 3200 E. Cheyenne Ave., 651-5483, $10-$12.