On Stage: Social Butterflies

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Shakespeare Theatre’s ‘Importance of Being Earnest’ flits and flutters in fun.


Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” (Photo by Scott Suchman)

There is a lush elegance to the staging of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” now playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre. When the curtain opened for the second act, the audience broke into applause for Simon Higlett’s dramatic set of a gentile British Manor house with columned portico and sunny English garden filled with colorful flowers in imposing urns.

Director Keith Baxter reverently evokes the formal opulence so vital to the staging of Wilde’s wonderful farce. Baxter is careful to respect the Victorian period, emphasizing the importance of living well and looking good, coupled with the pretenses of the period that Wilde satirizes so devastatingly. This is not a play for modern dress or some forced effort to make it different, and Baxter understands that.

The basis of “The Importance of Being Earnest” is an atmosphere of privileged young men of leisure and the well-dressed, ditsy, showpiece women to whom they are attracted. This wickedly funny farce mocks the Victorian institutions of marriage, love and social position. It is filled with the acidly clever lines that only Oscar Wilde could produce. Wilde in writing to a friend describing this, the most successful of his plays, said: “I hope you enjoy my trivial play. It is written by a butterfly for butterflies.”

It is true; there is no profound message to be unearthed in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” but it is the lilting triviality of the play that has made it a classic for the ages. It is all superficial, cynical fun, written to be enjoyed.

Being “earnest” is what it is: The story of dilettante Jack Worthing (Gregory Wooddell) who owns a country manor house where his naïve teenage ward Cecily (Katie Fable) lives. But when he goes into the city for his pleasurable escapades and to court Gwendolen (Vanessa Morosco), he uses the name Ernest. He, however, tells Cecily that he goes to the city to visit his dissolute brother, Ernest.

As the play opens, Worthing is in the well-appointed morning room of his friend Algernon Moncrieff (Anthony Roach) who learns of Jack’s subterfuge and admits that he too has a made-up sick friend, Bunbury, that he uses to get out of whatever he doesn’t want to do; usually some tedious dinner his dominating aunt wants him to attend. He is intrigued to learn of the existence of Cecily and is determined to meet her. The two men, Wooddell and Roach, are indolent gentlemen of means who are mostly interested in where they are going for dinner, or whatever other pleasures they can find. The mythical people they have created are acceptable fantasies, useful in avoiding anything they find tiresome so opportunities for the more pleasurable pursuits can be enjoyed. Wooddell and Roach are a perfectly matched Jack and Algernon. They have mastered the exaggerated movements of that leisured class and the hedonistic demeanor that takes advantage of the fun of an uncomplicated play.

To the consternation of Jack and Algernon, they suddenly find themselves trapped in their elaborate lies. Algernon goes to the country and meets Cecily while Jack is in the city visiting his brother Ernest. Algernon says he is Jack’s brother Ernest. Cecily, of course, immediately falls in love with Algernon simply because his name is Ernest and would have it no other way. Jack has the same problem when Gwendolen tells him she couldn’t love a man who wasn’t named Ernest. And therein lies the dilemma.

Further complicating the plot is Wilde’s secret weapon Lady Bracknell, played by international star, Welsh actress Sian Phillips. A grand dame playing Wilde’s grand dame, Lady Bracknell. She is a man-of-war under full sails and she stands in the way of the two couples finding happiness — opposing Jack, who lacks the proper family breeding (he was a foundling), and the other for Algernon, who it seems is without a proper financial foundation. Lady Bracknell is one of the great roles of the English-speaking Theater and it is a role that has been performed by some of the leading actresses of the 20th century. Phillips gives a commanding performance that easily makes her Lady Bracknell one of the memorable interpretations of that role.

One of the most recognizable and loved character actors of the Washington theater community, Floyd King, is his usual delightful presence in the role of Dr. Chasuble. King has such a versatile, comic persona that he can garner laughs by just walking out onto the stage.

Like a convoluted Shakespearean comedy, Oscar Wilde ties up all the loose ends and deceptions into an amusing but satisfying ending, but in the trivial nature of it all being so earnest, it appeals to the suppressed butterfly in all of us.

The Importance of Being Earnest” continues through March 16, 2014 at Shakespeare Theatre Company‘s Landsburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW. Tickets start at $20, available at 877-487-8849 and online here.

Related Articles