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THEATER REVIEW The Importance of Being Earnest
by James R. Wilke
2017-11-22

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Playwright: Oscar Wilde

At: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. Tickets: writerstheatre.org; $35-80. Runs through: Dec. 23

On the evening of Saint Valentine's Day, 1895, the audience at St. James' Theatre in London raucously cheered a new romantic farce by a popular Irish playwright. Yet while Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest would go on to be heralded as one of the greatest English plays of all time, Wilde would find himself imprisoned for "gross indecency" only months later, persecuted for his homosexuality and never to write another play.

Yet we may still celebrate the genius of this man today at the Writers Theatre, with a revival of Earnest that feels as fresh, fun, and engaging now as it may have been in its own time. Wilde's wit and command of the English language was so masterful, and the cast's delivery of his lines so clear and crisp, it feels as if the play could have been written today. And the play's underlying criticisms of the trivialities and vanities of Victorian society seem almost frighteningly modern.

The performance space—Writers Theatre's must-see new facility that opened in February 2016—is itself worth the visit. And perhaps the most shining stars in this revival are scene designer Collette Pollard and costume designer Mara Blumenfeld. Both with unparalleled skill have created a visual Victorian fantasy in soft sorbet colors and cascading white marble, populated by elegant characters in a pleasing array of patterns that enhance and invigorate the play.

This comedy is a farcical tale of frenemies bumbling toward love. Two young society men, Jack and Algy, played by Alex Goodrich and Steve Haggard, both create false personae, lie and ensnare each other in predicaments, seemingly out to destroy each other while remaining friends. And their romantic counterparts, Gwendolen and Cecily ( Jennifer Latimore and Rebecca Hurd ), prove equal parts affectionate and adversarial. Yet the greatest obstacle for all is the formidable Lady Bracknell, craftily played by Shannon Cochran. Perhaps the only true love of the play is that between the minor characters, Rev. Canon Chasuble and the dowdy Miss Prism, played sweetly by Aaron Todd Douglass and Anita Chandwaney, respectively.

This production is expertly done. Yet, while the actors show great rapport with each other and a clear understanding of Wilde's words, my chief criticism is that they still came across throughout the play as actors to me rather than the characters themselves. The present production is filled with laugh-out-loud moments, to be sure. But I was left wondering how much funnier and crazier this whole farce could become if I'd actually believed that these characters, in all their foolish machinations, were being truly … earnest.


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