Singing in the wilderness


By Jerry Tallmer

Mr. Fulcomtre, a hale and hearty English teacher of the long ago, always told us that “Ah, Wilderness!” was the best play Eugene O’Neill ever wrote. Well, it was, in any event, the happiest play—the only happy play—Eugene O’Neill ever wrote, an inside-out 180-degree inversion of the miserable Tyrones of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

As such it was perfect fodder for Bob Merrill, Joseph Stern, and Robert Russell to turn into an amiable 1959 Broadway musical called “Take Me Along,” with totally dysfunctional James and Mary Tyrone transformed into Grant Wood-ish Nat and Essie Miller of Centerville, Connecticut, U.S.A.

“He’s not a drunk and she’s not shooting up. They’re just lonely people trying to raise their kids,” says beauteous Beth Glover, “and I’m the old-maid aunt who’s in love with a drunk. There had to be at least one Irish drunk in an O’Neill play.”

The old-maid aunt—not so old, really—is Nat Miller’s sister Lily, and the ne’er-do-well gambler and ever-lapsing Irish drunk is Essie Miller’s brother Sid, a sometime newspaperman of sorts. For ten years, Sid has been asking Lily to marry him, and for ten years she has been stalling because he always disappoints her by falling back into booze.

The 1959 Broadway show “Take Me Along” was carried on the broad shoulders—and broader comedy—of Jackie Gleason as Sid (to Eileen Herlie’s Lily). When Beth Glover got the call to audition for Charlotte Moore’s current production of “Take Me Along” at the fine little Irish Repertory Theater on West 22nd Street, it was for the role of Essie Miller, wife of Nat, mother of three growing boys.

“I remember thinking I was right for Lily,” says Mrs. Glover, “but you never tell a director that. Then Charlotte called and asked me to audition for Lily. And Charlotte sang with me during the audition—‘Make the Man Love Me,’ from ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ the perfect song for Lily.”

It is not hard to love Beth Glover, the once-upon-a-time Miss University of Southern Mississippi in her hometown of Hattiesburg, cradle of the Confederacy. She told that story in “Impaled on a Magnolia,” her rueful, funny, truth-telling one-woman autobiographical show that—starting at Westbeth and then Rose’s Turn, on Grove Street, opened doors to her as an actress. She played all the parts of her whole family and everyone else—“including my crazy pageant coach”—in this saga of “growing up in beauty pageants, and eating disorders, and how to get out of Mississippi.”

It also enabled her to quit her day job at a midtown Manhattan bank.

There’s no Irish in Beth Glover, so far as Beth knows, “but there is some Cherokee or Choctaw in me” by way of a great-grandmother. Not to be confused with “my step-great-grandmother, a horrible old woman who dipped snuff and spit it at people at family reunions.”

The Lily of the Irish Rep’s “Take Me Along” credits Charlotte Moore with widening the show from its emphasis on Sid (Don Stephenson) and Lily—“I feel almost naked on stage as Lily”—to equal highlights on Nat (William Parry) and Essie (Donna Bullock), and the puppy love and sexual misadventures of their 17-year-old son Richard (Teddy Eck) in his pursuit of 16-year-old neighboring Muriel (Emily Skeggs), the papa-fearing Mss Goody Two Shoes who could, if she would, provide Richard with Paradise enow.

The mild-mannered, loving Lily of “Take Me Along” has lately, she says, “been playing a lot of angry women, I don’t know why.” One of these angry women is Ellie Vanderlyn of “Glimpses of the Moon,” the Jazz Age musical—based on the Edith Wharton novel—in which Beth has been appearing Monday nights at the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room.

In it she has, among other tart lines, this one: “Genius is wasted on a woman who can’t do anything with her hair.”

“Isn’t that horrible?,” says Ms. Glover. “And one night it stopped the show.”

Impaled indeed.

TAKE ME ALONG. By Bob Merrill (music and lyrics), Joseph Stein, and Robert Russell (book). Adapted from Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” Directed by Charlotte Moore. Through April 14th at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, (212) 727-2737, or www.irishrep.org.