An Interview with Ah, Wilderness! Director Casey Stangl

By Allie Moss 

Director Casey Stangl.
Photo by Ann Marsden.
Director Casey Stangl returns to A.C.T. to stage Eugene O’Neill’s American classic Ah, Wilderness! She approaches Ah, Wilderness! with a fearlessness toward this play’s particular challenges and an appetite for unearthing truths. “I want there to be a sense of immediacy,” Stangl says. “The characters confront first love, parent-child relationships, and the difficulty of finding love and companionship as they get into their older years. These situations are so universal and are very much with us today.” We spoke to Stangl recently about her directorial vision for A.C.T.’s production of Ah, Wilderness!

O’Neill is generally known for his tragic works, but Ah, Wilderness! is a comedy. How does that inform your understanding of the play? 
I think that the comedy actually derives from the great depth of feeling that is in the play. These characters are real people in real situations with real consequences. But even though the consequences and the circumstances are deep, there’s a lightness to the material, and the characters come out on top. The play doesn’t shy away from depth of feeling, but because there’s this effervescence to the material, everything has a soft landing. That’s where the comedy comes from. It comes out of the characters and their situations, not jokes.

O’Neill is known for incorporating historically accurate slang into his plays. When directing Ah, Wilderness!, how do you plan to approach that language?
 I feel like O’Neill was trying to write truth. Before him, theater in the United States was pretty much only vaudeville and musicals. He was writing the language that he heard people speak, and he was trying to write it with a kind of naturalism. When the actors and I approach the slang, we won’t stylize it. We will figure out a way to integrate it into the characters’ regular language so that it gives us a sense of them as living, breathing people.

How does nostalgia function in the play, and what does it mean for you aesthetically? 
To some degree, I feel like nostalgia is something to be careful of and, in some ways, to avoid. I don’t want us to look at these people as fixtures of the past or as museum pieces. In Ah, Wilderness!, there’s more of a sense of dreaminess and memory—that’s an aspect of nostalgia that I like and that has very much informed what Ralph [Funicello, scenic designer] is doing with the piece. We have a scrim [a large piece of cloth onstage that appears opaque until lit from behind]. That design element evokes beauty and poetry. The aspect of nostalgia that I don’t want is the sense of characters not feeling vibrant or real. That idea can be useful as a way of looking at the piece dramaturgically, but as a piece of theater, we want to make sure that we land the characters in a place that feels immediate to us.

Ah, Wilderness! is set more than one hundred years ago. What relevance does it hold for today’s audiences? 
We all still fall in love. We all still worry about our children. We all still fight our demons. These are human conditions that have not changed in a hundred years, and they’re rendered so beautifully and with great gentleness in this play. In our current generation, which is so prone to snark and cynicism and the easy brutality that social media can foster, this compassion, gentleness, warmth, and love for one’s fellow man feels like a real tonic right now.

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