(front) Joseph Heberle, Jamie Coffey, Helen Lister, & Will DeVary. (back) Alec Elmore & Shannon Bradley In The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo courtesy of Walden Theatre.
The Importance of Being Earnest
By Oscar Wilde
Directed by Charlie Sexton
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
I first saw this classic Oscar Wilde comedy on a Walden Theatre stage in 1979, with a cast that included Charlie Sexton. Mr. Sexton played it again not long after, and this effort is at least his third time directing the play. If it serves as a touchstone in his long career, we must give credit for an adherence to quality, for Earnest is one of the funniest, most carefully constructed comedies ever devised.
Wilde’s delicious dialogue makes a virtue of deceit and subterfuge in personal relationships as a satire on social mores of his time, but the themes have never lost their relevance and the piece never feels dated. Victorian gentleman Jack Worthing (Joseph Heberle) pretends to have a brother named Earnest and fills the role himself. Jack in the country and Earnest in London, where he has a friend named Algernon Moncrieff (Will DeVary), a rapscallion who discovers his secret. As Earnest, Jack woos and wins the engagement of Gwendolyn Fairfax, Algernon’s cousin and the daughter of the intimidating Lady Bracknell (Neill Robertson). In Act Two we meet Jack’s young ward, Cecily (Helen Lister), who, after an unexpected visit from Algernon posing as Earnest, is smitten and shorty engaged as well.
Wilde’s parody of English society is sharp, subtle and without mercy, and he connects us to the characters through wit and intelligence of a kind that we rarely encounter in today’s culture. It demands to be played with the same qualities, and Mr. Sexton’s cast acquits themselves admirably.
Joseph Heberle has worked with detail and focus to create a colorful Jack, although he seems more a character actor, and he misses the leading man panache the material seems to require. Its good work, but he seems slightly miscast. Will DeVary is closer to the mark as Algernon, capturing the mischievous delight of the character. Jamie Coffey is nicely conceited and supercilious as Gwendolyn, and Helen Lister is a dynamo as Cecily: spunkier than ingénue. In the first scenes there was a lack of chemistry, but once the plot places these two women together, things have started to click, and they make the most of the opportunity. Alec Elmore is a funny Rev. Chausable, Shannon Bradley a dingy but dignified Miss Prism, while Oliver Cox and Jude Stivers color the space between with sly humor as servants.
There is a history of Lady Bracknell being played by a man, a play on the contrast in male/female power. But does the choice also illuminate the perceived masculinity of an authoritative woman who strikes fear in the hearts of everyone she encounters, suggesting that her imperiousness results from a lack of femininity rather than the cumulative effect of social and cultural status inherent to Victorian England. Bracknell is played in this production by Walden Instructor Neill Robertson, who is a male actor capable of distinctly feminine movement, with a willowy frame and balletic grace of gesture that would be the envy of peers of any gender. His performance here may be the most masculine work I have seen from him, so stalwart and unyielding is his Lady Bracknell, yet also rendered with the carefully calculated effects in pace and phrasing that Mr. Robertson reliably provides in any performance.
There was also a good deal of nice dialect work that showed the value of having a Dialect Coach (Jennifer Pennington). Accents can be a perilous step into the deep end of the pool, but the educational context of the production pays off beautifully in this regard.
Clay Marshall and Elliot Cornett’s set design was simple but elegantly suggestive of richly appointed homes without being ostentatious. Costumes by Lauren Woods were also effective, although some pieces were slightly ill fitting, especially on the two male leads. The two outfits provided for Lady Bracknell are small masterpieces of a hybrid Victorian/Post-modern geometrical design aesthetic, especially the outrageous three-cornered hat in the first act.
The Importance of Being Earnest
October 8, 9, 10, 15, 16, 17 @ 7:30pm
October 10 & 17 @ 2:00pm
Walden Theatre / Blue Apple Players
The Nancy Niles Sexton Stage
1125 Payne Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40206
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.