When a play survives more than 150 years and is known less for being a “classic” than for being a sharply witty and still relevant comedy, it’s obviously one that should be seen. Such a play is “The Importance of Being Earnest,” a brilliant, satirical look at the follies and foibles of the English upper class at the turn of the century — the 19th century, that is — by Oscar Wilde, one of only two playwrights of that era whose works still are played and replayed today. The other is George Bernard Shaw.
“Earnest,” which premiered in London in February 1895, is the one non-musical (I would say straight play but there is little straight about this production) on the Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre 2010 season. Actually, Wilde’s final theatrical work has been called “a verbal opera,” so lyrically does his crisply-paced dialogue ebb and flow and most often hit the mark square on. Wilde’s mark was the society in which he lived and he was frequently less than subtle in his barbs.”That is the whole truth, pure and simple,” says John (Jack) Worthing (Nick Laughlin). “The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” replies his friend Algernon Moncrieff (Ari Frenkel). “Modern life would be very tedious if it were either and modern literature would be a complete impossibility.” The two gentlemen compare romantic personas. Jack reveals that he is called Earnest in town and Jack when at his Manor House in the country, while Algernon relies on a conveniently ill friend Bunbury, whenever he wishes to escape tiresome social obligations. Bunbury, of course, is a complete fabrication but he serves a purpose. Jack is enamoured of Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Caitlin Mesiano), who is watched closely by her mother Lady Bracknell (Dannielle Robertson), an arbiter of all things socially acceptable. “Never speak disrespectfully of society,” she declares. “”Only people who can’t get into it do that.” Algernon, meanwhile, is determined to meet Jack’s ward, Cecily Cardew (Kayla Roy), who lives in the country. As each woos his lady, they discover that the two girls share one fixation: a determination to fall in love with someone named Earnest. Both men schedule baptisms in a rush to become Earnest, enlisting the aid of the Rev. Canon Chasuble (Dave Adamick). He harbors a secret admiration for Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism (Sophie Grimm), a woman with a connection to Lady Bracknell and a certain missing handbag. Hovering on the periphery of the social swirl are Lane, Algernon’s manservant (Matt Gottlieb), and Merriman, Jack’s manservant, (Zachary McConnell).
Everyone is paired correctly by the final blackout, although Jack mourns the fact that “It is a terrible thing for a men to discover that all of his life he has been telling nothing but the truth.” Directors Ben Dicke and Andy Robinson added a great deal of physical comedy a la The Three Stooges which obviously entertained the opening night audience but turned the gentlemen into foolish fops. Ensemble songs at the opening set the scene (“London Town”) and added a nice ending touch (Noel Coward’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”). At times the girls were difficult to understand, although their English accents were the most believable, but Lady Bracknell lacked the commanding presence that should immediately identify her as a force to be reckoned with. The use of instrumental music from Gilbert and Sullivan”s “The Pirates of Penzance” made the scene changes a delightful and viable part of the production.
“THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST” plays through Aug. 14 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For show times and reservations, call 267-8041.