The 2019 Silver Spring Stage production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde is now streaming on YouTube. It is produced by Lenny Magida and directed by Bill Hurlbut.
The play was first performed on February 14, 1895 in London. The production was the pinnacle of Wilde’s career but oddly led to his downfall. Wilde was gay and his lover was the son of the Marquess of Queensberry. The Marquess planned to give Wilde a bouquet of rotten vegetables at intermission. Wilde found out, and Queensberry was stopped at the door. This led to a feud that went to court where Wilde’s homosexuality was revealed. Because homosexuality was illegal in Victorian England, he was sent to prison. After his release, Wilde went into exile in Paris and did publish the play from there. The original production was forced to close due to Wilde’s new notoriety and he wrote no more plays after that.
Hurlbut’s direction emphasizes the humor without getting hammy. The comic timing is flawless. The lines just seem to flow.
The play has been revived many times and is often on school reading lists. It has often been called trivial, but underneath it there is some biting satire about the upper crust of British society. Some scholars think the duplicity of the main two male characters are a subtext of the way homosexuals in Victorian England had to mask their real sexuality, pretending to be something they were not.
Wilde’s dialogue has always been acclaimed, and it is still noteworthy in this comedy whose full title is really “The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.” Wilde uses a lot of wordplay, from the title to the end line.
The plot revolves around two sets of would-be lovers. Jack Worthing (Noah Rich) is in love with Hon. Gwendolyn Fairfax (Emma Wesslund). But Gwendolyn thinks Jack is Earnest, Jack’s made-up brother. Gwendolyn wants to marry “Earnest,” but her mother, Lady Bracknell (Susan Holliday) thinks Jack/Earnest is beneath them and refuses his request to marry her daughter. Meanwhile, Algernon Moncrieff, (Nicholas Temple), Jack’s friend and Lady Bracknell’s nephew, is made privy to Jack’s secret. Jack tells Algie about his country home where he is the guardian of a young woman, Cecily Cardew (Camille Pozderac). Jack tells him that Earnest is the personae he uses in the city to hide his indiscretions. When Algernon hears about Cecily, he decides to meet her and, unbeknownst to Jack, goes to his country home. Algernon pretends be Jack’s imaginary brother, Earnest, and he and Cecily fall in love at first sight. From that point on, mayhem ensues.
The Silver Spring Stage production of this classic is top notch. One of the primary reasons it is so successful is that they updated the time period from the Victorian Age to the 1920s-30s. The lighter clothing not only gives the actors more mobility, but gives the play a less ponderous appearance. The set décor is also more modern, mirroring the costumes. The upholstery is brighter, the curtains more flowing and the occasional pieces (side chairs, tables, carts, etc.) are smaller and less imposing.
But it is the acting style that really makes the difference. The actors are more like performers in a Noel Coward comedy than a Victorian play. The dialogue is fast-paced, and its humor works nicely with the consistently applied British accents. The play, which was much less melodramatic than other comedies of its era, is much more palatable to the taste of modern audiences. Hurlbut’s direction emphasizes the humor without getting hammy. The comic timing is flawless. The lines just seem to flow. His staging is also more contemporary. Characters are more natural in their stances and, since this was performed in pre-pandemic times, it is nice to see the love interests touch so comfortably.
The actors who play the four would-be lovers are truly a joy to watch. Rich and Temple come off as characters who think they are debonair, but are really a shade less than that. Their relationship from confidantes to adversaries and to friends again is convincing due to their fine acting. The two young women, as played by Wesslund and Pozderac, could have been too silly for modern audiences, but their talent prevents that. Although the two girls often are shallow, they seem no more so than many rom-com heroines. This quartet has wonderful chemistry as friends, enemies, and lovers.
The supporting cast enriches the show as well. Holliday is very funny as the Aunt, reflecting the satire of Wilde’s portrait of upper-class matrons. She knows what works and catches ever chance to get a laugh.
Karen Fleming as Laetitia Prism and Stephen Johnson as Canon Chasable are also well worth watching in the side plot of two older would-be lovers. They have great chemistry as well. As the twists are revealed, their reactions help make this incredible plot work.
Tom Schiller steals most of his scenes as the harried butler both in the city and the country. (The are two different characters.) Just one you think they have gone too far, he pulls it back and makes us accept the character. More so, Schiller makes us empathetic to his characters.
The set design and set decoration by Maggie Modig and Malca Giblin are instrumental in this successful production. A round of applause to both. The same should be said for Linda Swann’s period costuming. All three elements blend perfectly. The hair/makeup designs by Maureen Roult help add to this tastefully done production. Don Slater’s lighting keeps the comedy bright and carefree. A nod goes to Gary Sullivan, the dialect coach, who has the actors of the same social stature speak alike, often rare in other productions.
Oddly, this presentation of “The Importance of Being Earnest” reminds me a great deal of the television comedy “Frazier.” The characters can be superficial and it contains satire about the snobbery of the upper-classes. The earthier characters also border on our disbelief without crossing the line. It is very amusing and keeps us wanting more.
If you have always wanted to see “The Importance of Being Earnest” but hesitated because you thought it might be too dated, catch this production. It is genuinely a wonderful diversion in these times. Actually, it would be a wonderful diversion at any time. Don’t miss it.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.
The Importance of Being Earnest” is presented free on Silver Spring Stage’s YouTubechannel. To find out about upcoming productions by Silver Spring Stage or to make a donation to help local theater during this unique time, you can go to their website.