Story: Algernon Moncrieff and John “Jack” Worthing, two well-to-do and idle young gentlemen of London society, divide their time in 1895 between the aristocracy in town and the more retiring sorts in the country. A big decision for Algie, e.g., is how many cucumber sandwiches he might consume at one sitting.
While visiting Algie at his London flat, Jack reveals that he’s in love with his friend’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax, bewitching daughter of the stern and highly proper Lady Bracknell. When Jack proposes to Gwendolen she accepts, but mostly because she believes his name to be Ernest, the name Jack assumes when he’s in town and living the good life. Lady Bracknell, though, dismisses ‘Ernest’ because she is less than impressed with the level of his pedigree.
Intrigued that ‘Ernest’ is really Jack, Algernon also learns that Jack is uncle and ward to a young woman named Cecily Cardew, who lives at Jack’s country home with her tutor, Miss Prism. Algie discovers the address, visits Cecily and is smitten with her. She also has a fondness for men named Ernest, no problem for Algie since he has adopted that name while visiting.
Both Algie and Jack decide to be officially christened ‘Ernest,’ but wouldn’t you know that their double lives catch up with them before they can orchestrate such an occurrence. Will they be able to marry their respective loves if they have to admit to their own real names?
Highlights: Oscar Wilde’s witty comedy of manners and morals in Victorian English society has become one of the most produced plays in the English language since early in the 20th century, although tragically its 1895 opening in London led to Wilde’s imprisonment for homosexuality and his untimely death at age 46 in 1900.
Wilde’s sharp mind and clever way with words fill The Importance of Being Earnest with a steady flow of bons mots and humorous bromides that are delivered in engaging and amusing style in this OAT offering under Pamela Reckamp’s meticulous direction. Although it has its drawbacks, the OAT production keeps the laughs coming at an enjoyable pace throughout.
Other Info: Ozark Actors Theatre usually offers three comedies and/or musicals in its summer season, now in its 28th edition and the second year under producing managing director Stephenie Moser. It’s a pleasant, 100-mile journey from St. Louis down I-44 to Rolla, where OAT performs at the Cedar Street Playhouse, a renovated church that currently is preparing for additional remodeling.
The dialogue and situations in Wilde’s three-act comedy -- here reduced to two lengthy acts played out in a little more than two and a half hours -- are clever enough in their own right that they don’t really require much alteration. As a result, the highly exaggerated portrayals by Blane Pressler and Kelly Pekar as Algernon and Gwendolen, respectively, could be toned down a tad with the presentation suffering nary a notch.
That’s not to say Pressler and Pekar aren’t able to handle their roles. Both are accomplished performers who revel in Wilde’s urbane dialogue and know how to mine the comedy inherent in his witty words with observations such as “Truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
A more agreeable way to impart those exaggerations is offered by Jennifer Theby-Quinn as the wide-eyed Cecily. Theby-Quinn milks that part with judicious rolling of eyes or contorting of face to reveal the ward’s approach to love with her ‘Ernest.’
Michael Dewar is appealing as the well-intentioned Jack, whose unfortunate past is turned into a delightful future in Wilde’s amusing script. He is particularly endearing in a funny scene where Donna Weinsting as Lady Bracknell grills him like a fearsome, unblinking boss screening a potential job applicant.
Dewar’s delivery of Jack’s honest answers can’t hold much sway with Weinsting, who cherishes the opportunity to drop Lady Bracknell’s acidic observations with her customary flair and wry approach.
There’s delightful work by Hannah Bagnall as Jack’s terminally cheerful maid Merriman and Nick Schaeffler has fun as Algernon’s stoic butler Lane. Laura Light is engaging as the dutiful Miss Prism, who has a mild fling of her own with the buttoned-down country minister, Reverend Chasuble, portrayed earnestly (really) by Jeff Williams.
Reckamp plays up the hijinks with her winning cast, who look properly dashing in Laura Cook’s elegant costumes. Kevin Shaw’s scenic design is dominated by a portrait of the playwright himself in Algernon’s London flat, while that and Jack’s country garden both benefit from Laura Light’s patrician props and Shaw’s lights.
More than a century after its premiere, there remains much to enjoy and relish in Wilde’s literary masterpiece, a treat for both eyes and ears.
Play: The Importance of Being Earnest
Company: Ozark Actors Theatre
Venue: Cedar Street Playhouse, 701 North Cedar, Rolla, MO
Dates: July 16, 17, 18, 19
Tickets: $12-$20; contact 573-364-9523 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ozark Actors Theatre