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Embracing Honest Curiosity: Holy Cross Alumnus Directs Fall Production “Ah, Wilderness”

Emily Arancio '20, who plays a principal role, leads a conversation with director Eric Butler '06
November 15th, 2019 by 

Students in costume stand in a circle and talk
Eric Butler '06 (far right) talks to performers (including Emily Arancio '20, second from left) before a dress rehearsal for "Ah, Wilderness." Photo by Avanell Brock

Eric Butler ’06 might have officially left College of the Holy Cross over a decade ago, but that hasn’t stopped him from returning to Mount St. James — and not just for reunion. Butler, who double majored in psychology and theatre at the College and now works full-time in the education technology industry, spent this semester directing the fall Department of Theatre’s production of “Ah, Wilderness,” Eugene O’Neill’s sole comedic play.

In a conversation with Emily Arancio ’20, a classics and theatre double major who plays Lily Miller in “Ah, Wilderness,” Butler discusses what the play means to him, why it’s important for the Holy Cross community and how it all comes back to his senior thesis.

Arancio: Why did you want to come back to Holy Cross to direct this show?

Butler: Who wouldn’t want to come back to Holy Cross and direct a production? I think the unique thing about the Holy Cross theatre department is it has really high standards for students, but it’s also really collaborative. So that’s just an ideal atmosphere to work on a theatre production, either as a director, an actor or a crew member. So when the opportunity came up, it was one I didn’t want to miss out on.

Arancio: Why “Ah, Wilderness?” Why Eugene O’Neill, and why this particular Eugene O’Neill?

Butler: You know, it’s interesting. I had presented 10 or so plays to the department and they felt that this particular play was the best fit for the department and the Holy Cross community at this time. But the reason it made my short list is when I was a student here at Holy Cross, I wrote my senior thesis examining Eugene O’Neill’s biography and his work through a Freudian lens. And while this particular work is not autobiographical, I would say it’s a play that is very much linked to his biography in the sense that it stems from what he wishes his adolescence and family was like. While “Ah Wilderness” possesses a comic tone, sweetness, and warmth that is rather uncharacteristic for O’Neill, the play’s complexity and beauty lies in the occasional melancholy that becomes slightly more pronounced when his own tragic family life is taken into account.

Arancio: How would you say this show fits into the Holy Cross community? What do you think an audience member will feel or experience coming to see this show?

Butler: When O’Neill was writing about this play in the 1930s, he felt society needed a play that was nostalgic and embraced the simple, pure values he remembered from the turn of the century; that American society just needed people like the Millers, people who were full of love, support, and understanding for one another. And interestingly enough at this point in our history, our culture is very much in need of the same today.

Arancio: What has been your favorite part about directing this particular show at this particular college with these particular students?

Butler: In terms of working with the students, I think there’s this honest curiosity that they have when they approach material. Very often, especially with adults who have been performing for a long period of time, there’s less of a journey with them. They come in with preconceived notions of the parts they’re playing and who their characters are, and how they’re going to approach it. I think with college students, with Holy Cross students particularly, they embrace the process and discovery along the way.

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