It’s only April but it seemed that summer camp was threatening to arrive early at West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park with their current production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which plays through May 3.
With what we know of Wilde’s life story—his arrest for “gross indecency” occurred not long after “Earnest’s” premiere in 1895—and from descriptions of his own on-stage persona during his lectures and readings, the temptation to camp up performances for contemporary audiences is well neigh irresistible, and unfortunately that is what the audience is greeted with in the opening scene of this production. The guilty parties are the overwrought and exaggerated affectations of James Parenti’s Algernon Moncreif, not helped by a dark wisp of a handlebar moustache, and Harrison Greene playing Algernon’s servant Lane, with his subtly rolling eyes and taunting behavior toward his boss. One fears that this will prove to be director Jerry Winters’ overall approach to the play, which admittedly was written as a farce, although one packed with undisguised social commentary.
But thankfully Michael Raver’s arrival as Jack Worthing, the ostensible central character of the play who for reasons only gradually revealed goes by the name of Ernest while in the city, offers some reassurance, as he provides a more studied, dare we say ‘earnest,’ portrayal of the young social gadabout. It feels almost as though Raver is trying to distance himself from Parenti’s more affected and jarring performance, as if providing such a contrast might help rein his scene partner in just a bit. The difference, however, also goes a long way to establish Worthing as the more responsible of the two, especially once it is revealed that Jack/Ernest serves as the cautious but loving guardian for his young ward, Cecily. Raver demonstrates that Wilde’s witty lines do not need to be over-pronounced to land effectively and produce the necessary laughter. Unfortunately, it takes a bit longer to accept the BFF relationship between Jack and his pal, as Parenti’s performance can at times be just too stylized and over exaggerated to be believably sincere.
Although modern productions often have a tendency to “camp up” the character of the formidable Lady Bracknell, this production doesn’t shortchange her imperiousness but presents a more realistic portrait of a privileged woman not necessarily of the highest societal status, but one who remains concerned enough about decorum and position to assure that her daughter and nephew marry well. Katrina Ferguson supplies the needed heft and authority to Lady Bracknell while minimizing her take-no-prisoners attitude and allowing glimpses of a sense of humor. It’s a genuinely rounded performance in a part that in recent decades has seen various directors stunt-cast a male actor in the role, with varied satiric and comic effect.
Also faring well are the two actresses who play the young love interests of Worthing and Montcrief, Jane Bradley as Jack’s Gwendolyn, the daughter of Lady Bracknell, and Laura Hankin, as Jack’s ward Cecily, who develops an obsessive curiosity about the Ernest that her guardian claims is his city-dwelling brother but who she has never met. Bradley allows her Gwendolyn to exhibit just the right amount of privilege for a young woman of her class, as well as being believable as she pretends to be a bit more knowledgeable and sophisticated than her mother has permitted her to be. Her Gwendolyn appears to have developed a sharper, more caustic edge as well, no doubt from sparring with her mother for some years.
Hankin presents a Cecily who is much younger and more naïve than her city counterpart. Hankin does effectively convey Cecily’s deep seated frustration with living a somewhat sheltered existence at Jack’s country estate as well as a burgeoning, mischevious curiosity that leads her to taking a number of gently defiant attitudes toward her guardian. Her Cecily also seems to enjoy a close, almost dependent relationship with her teacher, Miss Prism, played by Donna Schilke as a yearning early middle-aged spinster looking to connect with the local vicar, the Reverend Chasuble of David M. Farrington, played here as legitimately distracted, rather than as a doddering fool, as has been common in some other productions. Schilke clearly conveys the occasionally distracted Prism’s definite attraction to Chasuble, while Farrington’s depiction of the clergyman keeps his cards close to his chest, keeping us wondering if his feelings are reciprocal or disdainful.
Winters has restaged Wilde’s original three acts as two, placing an intermission in what would normally be the middle of the second act. It actually is a shrewd move as it ends the act on a high note of suspenseful hilarity and essentially makes what is now the first act as a lengthy set up for what proves to be the much funnier and more rewarding second half of the evening. It is here, for example, where the two young women are able to engage in a funny game of one-upmanship as they mistakenly think that they are in love with the same gentleman. Both Bradley and Hankin are at their best here as they bounce Wilde’s bon mots back and forth with ease of a Serena and Vanessa Williams. We also get to see Schikle’s Prism amusingly try to slide away from an embarrassing situation prompted by the unexpected arrival of Lady Bracknell.
Ferguson shows some additional dimensions to Bracknell, who’s willing to drop her condescending façade when the circumstances surrounding her daughter’s and nephew’s marriage prospects unexpectedly change for the better and reveal her ability to be seduced by money just as easily. And Winters and his cast do suitable justice to the play’s famous and merry revelation scene at the end which reveals what has happened to the strange handbag in which Mr. Worthing was found as a baby at Victoria station, who is really related to whom, and just who is really entitled to go by the name of “Ernest.”
Far from being the challenge it might have been, scenic designer Christopher Hoyt has been able to convey the three different settings quite simply and intelligently, with a backdrop suggesting a Victorian style room, which through Christopher Jones’ lighting design and a few carefully placed flower parts and a changing array of suggestive furniture, can be easily altered to move from being Algernon’s sitting room, Worthing’s country patio garden in the county and finally the morning room inside Jack’s manor house. The cast all wear Erin Payne’s lovely Victorian costumes with the necessary style and demeanor required, with the miniature hats she has provided for Lady Bracknell and Gwendolyn being simultaneously amusing and fashionably attractive.
The end result is a merrily giddy second act in significant contrast to the somewhat banal first act. It’s hard not be amused by the action and revelations of the second act particularly as the cast can be felt to be enjoying themselves speaking Wilde’s whip-smart language and certainly contributes to the audience leaving the theater on a relatively high note with plenty of grins and sharing of their favorite lines. You can hardly ask anything more of a theatrical comedy that even Wilde admitted was light-weight but funny.
For information and tickets, call the Playhouse on Park’s box office at 860.523.5900 ext. 10, or visit their website at www.PlayhouseOnPark.org. “The Importance of Being Earnest” runs through May 3.