As perhaps the pinnacle of high comedy in the English language, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest should never lose its place among classic dramatic literature. Each carefully placed word and phrase works to rattle the Victorian status quo and shed light on the trivialities society placed in high regard.
From start to finish, Director Keith Baxter’s production at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre demonstrates the paradoxes, sparkling wit, and seductive social satire of Wilde’s brilliant play. I believe Baxter, returning to direct Wilde for the third time, has found the secret to unlocking all the gems, bon mots, plot twists and cleverness Wilde packed into Earnest: get out of the way and let it all fly. When your partner is Oscar Wilde doing his fanciest footwork, you let him lead.
Duplicitous living catches up with two eligible bachelors, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, proving Wilde’s own line “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
To escape the boredom of dinner parties and card games at the club, Jack is “Earnest” in London while pursuing Miss Gwendolen Fairfax. Meanwhile he maintains a country estate and a young ward, Cecily Cardew. His friend Algie often heads to the countryside under the pretense of a visiting a sick friend, Mr. Bunbury and decides Bunbury will make a good excuse to meet young and pretty Miss Cardew. Jack is shocked hearing Gwendolen confess she can only marry a man named Earnest. After pretending to be Jack’s wicked younger brother Earnest to Cecily, Algernon discovers her determination to marry an Earnest, as well. Since neither of the gents is really named Earnest – or so they think – the paradoxical plot rattles along at a pretty pace until the curtain falls.
The casting is impeccable, starting with the formidable Siân Phillips making her STC debut as the just as formidable Lady Bracknell, who matches the carriage and stature of this legendary character like a tailored glove. Possessing a voice seasoned like a seasoned Stradivarius violin, Phillips uses her actor’s instrument like a virtuoso – from a school girl purr to a bass note below the staff.
The scene in which Lady Bracknell questions Jack about his suitability as a suitor to her daughter Gwendolen is a highlight of the production. Upon hearing Jack’s unfortunate lack of parents, Miss Phillips practically withers him with her response, “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
As Jack, Gregory Woodell has just the right touch of manners, confidence and vulnerability that mingle to make Mr. Worthing so likable. As his roué of a companion Algernon, Anthony Roach is the picture of the effete cad who may claim to be a confirmed bachelor but is nearly instantly ensnared by the simple charms of a comely young lady. Woodell and Roach preen, pose, cajole, act like perfect gentlemen one minute and petulant children the next: just as Wilde intended.
Playing the object of their affections, Vanessa Morosco as Gwendolen and Katie Fabel as Cecily match their male counterparts measure for measure. Morosco, like a tall Dresden doll, is every bit the high society lady of London airs. Cecily – simple, smart and approachable – is brought to life with nuance and verve by Fabel. The ladies have a ball being wooed by their men and an even bigger ball going from best friends and sisters to mortal enemies in no time flat.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
Closes March 9, 2014
Shakespeare Theatre Company
at Lansburgh Theatre
450 7th Street NW
2 hours, 20 minutes with 2 intermissions
Tickets: $20 – $115
Tuesdays thru Sundays
In the pivotal role of Cecily’s tutor, Miss Prism, Patricia Conolly is a treasure; I don’t believe I have ever seen a funnier Prism. Conolly is matched up nicely with another treasure, STC veteran Floyd King as the winsome vicar, Dr. Chasuble.
A masterpiece play and impeccable cast deserve the proper setting and dressing and there is no reason to be disappointed here. Algernon’s town house and Jack’s country estate are courtesy of set designer Simon Higlett, with special mention going to the second act reveal of the country garden, which elicited a gasp of appreciation from everyone in the audience, including me. Equally appealing are Robert Perdziola’s exquisite costumes – from the tailored, three-piece suits for Algie and Jack to the finely crafted hats and layered splendor of the ladies fashions.
It’s all there: the lines, the characters, the timing, the social commentary, the look and feel of the Victorian age. Shakespeare Theatre Company knows how to bring out the “class” in classic and The Importance of Being Earnest proves it once again.
It was just announced the production has been extended to March 9. Too bad it can’t run longer.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde . Directed by Keith Baxter . Featuring Siân Phillips, Anthony Roach, Gregory Woodell, Patricia Conolly, Katie Fabel, Floyd King, Vanessa Morosco, John O’Creagh, Todd Scofield, Logan Dalbello, and Lee McKenna . Set Design: Simon Higlett . Costume Design: Robert Perdziola . Lighting Design: Peter West . Sound Design: Jason Tratta . Wig Design: Paul Huntley . Composer/Arranger: Kim D. Sherman. Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company. Reviewed by Jeffrey Walker.
Barbara Trainin Blank . ShowBizRadio
Gracey Olmstead . American Conservative
G. Blaise Hoeler . BroadwayWorld
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Kate Wingfield . MetroWeekly
Trey Graham . City Paper
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Brian Bochicchio . MDTheatreGuide
Alexa Kelly . DCMetroTheaterArts