Review: The Importance of Being Earnest
One of the insufficiently highlighted treasures of the Boston area is the wealth of student theatre productions. I’ve discovered this because Sheriden Thomas of the Tufts drama faculty invites me to the productions she directs. (Full disclosure: I met her and her partner when, years ago, they took a few dance lessons from me.) How impressive that she has pulled off a slam-dunk with her present show, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the theater-in-the-round Balch Arena Theater, Feb17-19 and 24-26. This is, after all, an ambitious project with its British accents, three separate locations, complex wit and generous length.
The story is a complicated weave of misunderstandings and deceptions overlaid with the characters’ innocence, hypocrisy and true love. When wealthy young people with a decided lack of serious values become entangled, we know that they will eventually sort each other out. After all, Wilde’s approach of clever farce is no basis for anything but a happy ending.
Jack/Ernest Worthing (played with tight energy by freshman Adam Bangser) has established a troubled but entirely imaginary brother in town so that he has a regular excuse to leave his country estate to hang out with his rather dissolute friend Algernon (Ian Burnette with looks and attitude entirely suitable to his role). Algernon too has an imaginary invalid friend he has installed in the country as an escape valve.
Despite his hazy birth credentials - he had been found in a bag at Victoria Station, Jack/Ernest is wooing Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen (played by the commanding Lara Vancans) but faces the resistance of her snobby, cynical mother Lady Augusta Bracknell (wonderfully played by Melis Aker with high drama and great timing.) Gwendolen knows him only as Ernest, a name to which she is attached to a silly degree.
Switching location to Worthing’s country manor, a curious Algernon has snuck out of London to meet Jack/Ernest’s ward Cecily, a beautiful teenage flower (played with delightful confidence by Tali Cornblath). He claims to be the bad-boy brother “Ernest” – about whom it turns out she has long fantasized. They become betrothed in a matter of minutes, but complications arise when Jack returns to the country to declare “Ernest” dead, unaware that Algernon-as-Ernest has claimed his ward’s feelings.
An often-ignored scene involving a lawyer and a cop is a terrific addition to this production, just one of the directorial decisions that make this show so much fun. Solicitor Grigsby, Esq. (played with imperious, fierce elegance by Alexandra King) has come to collect “Ernest’s” unpaid club dining bill and is about to arrest Algernon/Ernest when young Cecily implores her guardian Jack/Ernest to cover the bill – which in fact he himself had run up.
All deceit and secrets are unraveled in the end and love triumphs. We the audience have not been asked for much in the way of emotional commitment, just a love of language, a willingness to laugh and a readiness to float around their irresponsible, inconsequential world of privilege. We’ve been allowed to enjoy the dramatic period costumes, not the least the striking hats of Lady Bracknell (spouting grass) and Jack/Ernest (a top hat as big as his torso). The sets are remarkable, using the theater-in-the-round setting to greatest advantage.
In a conversation with actor Alexandria King at the opening night party, she described the extent of the commitment of these drama students – the long daily rehearsals on top of their class load. King loved working with Oscar Wilde’s material and having the benefit of support from the drama department professionals. She is hoping for an acting career – despite the obvious perils of such a dream – because, she said, “After all, we only live once.”
Wilde would most emphatically agree with her although he was careful to keep expectations low. That is why he is happy to contradict the subtitle of the play, “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People” with its final dramatic line: "I've now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of being Earnest".
Sue Katz is an author (Thanks But No Thanks: The Voters Guide to Sarah Palin) and activist; visit her blog Consenting Adult at www.suekatz.typepad.com.