“I put my genius into my life and only my talent into my art.” So said Oscar Wilde, England’s foremost proponent of the 19th century Aesthetic movement, which advocated art for art’s sake. To this end, he made himself a work of art: dressing flamboyantly in velvet jackets, breeches, and black silk stockings, and accentuating his effeminate looks--slack, fleshy lips and sleepy, bedroom eyes. He was what Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger would call a “girlie-man.” Contemporary reports credit him with being a strong personality, a brilliant conversationalist, and a great wit. Nowhere are these last two traits more evident and put to good use than in The Importance of Being Earnest.
His plays have been classed as comedies of manners or social satires--a send-up of Victorian hypocrisies--and criticized for lacking “seriousness.” It has been suggested that the “earnest” (and the importance of being) in this, his most frivolous and light-hearted play, was a rejoinder to that comment - a literary thumbing of his nose at the critics. Whatever the case, Earnest was his most successful play: an overwhelming hit with audiences from its opening on February 14, 1895. The triumph was short-lived. Three-and-a-half months later, Wilde was found guilty of homosexual offenses and sentenced to two years hard labor. Audiences, critics, and theatrical producers turned against him. Eerily presaging our own McCarthy era, his plays were either banned or presented with his name removed. He emerged from prison bankrupt, and broken in spirit and health. He died three years later in Paris at the age of forty-six. But Earnest has continued to delight audiences in the hundred-plus years since his death, and it is through this play Wilde lives on. Surely no writer could ask for more.
The plot, such as it is, is as airy and as insubstantial as a Charlotte Russe. A slim piece of cake as plot--Jack wants to marry Gwendolen who can only love a man named Ernest--supporting a whipped cream concoction of witty epigrams: “All women become like their mothers, that is their tragedy. No man does, that’s his.” “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” The conflicts of the plot are resolved in the most improbable denouement, but who cares. Wilde did not intend for any of it to make sense, only to entertain the audience to the best of his comedic ability. It is sheer nonsense from beginning to end, and should be acted as such. Happily, under the sure-handed direction of Angie Flynn-McIver, it is.
The first act establishes the plot. Jack (James Meador), calling himself Ernest, proposes to Gwendolen (Rebecca Morris). She agrees, saying she has always wanted to marry an Ernest and could never marry a man with another name, especially not Jack. Her mother, Lady Bracknell (Valerie Hogstrom), declares him unsuitable when she discovers he has no knowledge of his parentage, having been found as an infant in a handbag in the cloakroom of a railway station--Brighton line. Meanwhile, Jack’s friend, Algernon (Michael Ackerman), learns Jack has a ward, Cecily (Amanda Leslie) who lives at his country house, and determines to meet her. He arrives at the house, announces himself as Ernest, Jack’s younger brother, and quickly becomes engaged to her. Confusion ensues when Gwendolen turns up, followed by complications when Lady Bracknell arrives. All is unraveled and the course of events set straight by Cecily’s nurse, Miss Prizm (Kay Galvin), and the lovers embrace in a happy ending.
The opening scene between Michael Ackerman (Algernon) and James Meador (Jack) gets off to a slow start, lacking the rapid-fire repartee necessary to support the barbed wit of the dialogue. Mr. Ackerman looks every inch the dandy Algernon is, but comes across as petulant rather than effete. Mr. Meador is appropriately serious and, dare I say it, earnest as Jack. But not until the arrival of Valerie Hogstrom (Lady Bracknell) and Rebecca Morris (Gwendolen) does the pacing pick up. Ms Hogstrom, flamboyantly costumed by Stan H. Poole, is the very essence of the Victorian upper class lady. Her timing is impeccable, and she uses her voice to hilarious effect as she flutes it up and down the scale, registering dismay, disdain, and disapproval. She totally steals the scene. Ms Morris’s Gwendolen displays all the sang-froid that a young lady of her station may be expected to display, controlling the scene with Jack in a way that shows us exactly what being married to her will be like.
The pacing of the play comes alive in the second act. Amanda Leslie’s Cecily is no docile country mouse, but rather Gwendolen’s counterpart in every way. She manipulates Algernon, as adroitly as Gwendolen manipulated Jack. And in the scene between Ms Leslie’s Cecily and Ms Morris’s Gwendolen, the perfect politeness of traded insults aptly illuminates Wilde’s wit. And, as in the first act, Valerie Hogstrom’s arrival steals the show. In this appearance, her costuming is so extraordinary the audience burst into applause, and rightly so, but the success of the scene is owed to Ms Hogstram’s talent as an actress.
Able support to the goings on is supplied by Kay Galvin as Nurse Prizm, who harbors a guilty secret, and Hal Hogstrom as Rev. Chausable, whose celibate days are numbered.
As noted earlier, Stan H. Poole’s costuming is outstanding. Whether taking tea in a London flat or in the garden of a country house, the actors are impeccably dressed--just as one would expect of upper class Victorians. The inventive sets by Michelle Carello, using only a few well-imagined pieces, establishes the social and economic standing of the characters, and adds to the success of the production.
But it is direction of the very talented Angie Flynn-McIver that pulls everything together. She has a fine feeling for the wit and comedy of Oscar Wilde; his lines sparkle under the pacing she has set for the show. And despite the fact that the play is more than a hundred years old, it’s as fresh and refreshing as it was then. Ms Flynn-McIver has delivered a totally satisfying fun-filled evening.