Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of best-known, most-often-produced, -quoted, -imitated, -butchered plays in existence. It is an easy play to stage, but a difficult play to do well, which is why most productions fall in the mediocre middle, where far too many great plays go to die.
Resurrecting Earnest time and again is no easy task, but the Guthrie Theater’s latest incarnation, directed by Joe Dowling, breathes a considerable amount of fresh life into Wilde’s well-worn witticisms, and finds several lively veins of humor in a place where few think to look: namely, in the non-verbal aspect of the play. The servants don’t say much, for instance, but their weary looks and obsequious smiles convey worlds of indignity and call attention to the ridiculous shallowness of the people they serve. Likewise, a deft gesture here and a priceless facial expression there are often all that’s needed to milk the extra laugh from Wilde’s precociously snappy one-liners, and milk them Dowling does.
The biggest challenge to doing a good Earnest is finding ways to make the almost mathematical precision of Wilde’s jokes feel organic and natural to the characters. As with Shakespeare, a linguistic wall must be hurdled. Fortunately, Joe Dowling excels at this sort of thing, and he has—through excellent acting, ingenious line readings, and a deft feel for the satirical undercurrent of the play—found countless ways to make Wilde’s artificially articulate dialogue feel almost natural. Great acting helps, of course. John Skelley is a fantastically impish Algernon, and Nick Mennell’s Jack Worthing is an excellent foil for Algernon’s shenanigans—greasy and foppish, but likeable.
It’s really the women that make the play hum, though. Linda Thorson’s Lady Bracknell isn’t as large a presence as usual (many directors tend to go overboard with her character), but her stern, no-nonsense brassiness keeps the silliness of the rest of the play nicely in check. As Gwendolyn Fairfax, Heidi Armbruster is over-the-top hilarious, and as Cecily Cardew, Jack Worthing’s 18-year-old ward, Erin Krakow has all the endearing, spirited, bubble-headed charm one could ever ask for in that role. The sets (designed by Guthrie newcomer Walt Spangler) are exquisite as well—especially the garden scene, which is framed by gigantic pink roses that look like they’re made out of frosting and subtly match the color of Cecily’s dress. Beautiful.
What raises the Guthrie’s production several notches above the norm, however, is the recognition on Dowling’s part that Wilde’s play isn’t just a collection of exquisite zingers strung together like popcorn. At its heart, The Importance of Being Earnest is a rather brazen social satire that needles the ruling class’s obsession with a person’s name and station. The whole idea that the women in the play are in love with a name—Earnest—not the man attached to the name, is absurd. And yet, that’s often how it was (and is sometimes still) done. There is plenty of comedy in the play’s central conceit, of course, but the Guthrie’s production feels more robust and consequential because it remains firmly rooted in the tragic persona of Oscar Wilde himself, who died because of who he was.
As Joe Dowling pointed out in the pre-opening dinner, The Importance of Being Earnest was the last play Wilde was able to stage before his life began to unravel until his death four years later in Paris, at the age of 46. Wilde’s fate is eerily foreshadowed in the play (Jack Worthing tries to “kill” his imaginary brother, Earnest, by claiming that he died of a chill in Paris), and Dowling’s deep awareness of his Irish countryman’s travails may be part of the artistic spirit that enlivens this production. Whatever it is, it’s working. How else to explain that I now find myself wholeheartedly endorsing the play that, when the season was announced, I was least interested in seeing?
The Importance of Being Earnest continues at The Guthrie Theater through Nov. 8.