If it were up to me, Kansas City would celebrate Oscar Wilde every year, on the occasion of some U.K. national holiday. Given my bias, then, I had high hopes for the American Heartland Theatre's new production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
The works of the 19th-century poet, novelist and playwright have endured, though many may not be familiar with his writings. And Earnest isn't to everyone's taste, for some reason, perhaps due to its setting in Victorian England — it was first performed in 1895. But the comedy is filled with comments on love and marriage, friendship, social status, and the importance of appearances — relevant themes that never go out of style.
Wilde was a clever humorist, and just about every other line of dialogue is some witty remark that's often a play on words — note the title — perhaps too subtle at times to generate laughter the night I saw the play. But the audience was in the actors' hands by the end of the show.
This was due, in some part, to physical gags not in the original script — additions that work and aren't overdone. Paul Hough directs with the precision that a farce like this requires, and the physical comedy is nicely choreographed. The actors' accents sound believably British, and their repartee is perfectly timed. Hough and the cast of seven bring the comedy of manners to lively 21st-century life.
The plot is a twisted one of mistaken and assumed identity. The main character, respectable young John Worthing (Rusty Sneary), resides in the country with his teenage ward, Cecily Cardew (Emily Peterson). But when he goes to London, he becomes his fictional brother Ernest, an identity he has created in order to live a double life. In London, he visits his idle friend Algernon Moncrieff (Todd Carlton Lanker), whose cousin Gwendolen (Natalie Liccardello) is John's love interest. But Gwendolen knows John only as Ernest. Her mother and Algernon's aunt, Lady Bracknell (Jim Korinke — more on that later), can't accept Ernest/John's overtures to Gwendolen because when he was a baby, he was discovered inside a valise at Victoria Station and raised by the man who found him. Meanwhile, Cecily, under the care of governess Miss Prism (Cathy Wood), develops a fixation on this London-dwelling Ernest.
And that about skims the surface of a play preoccupied with surface. Besides, saying more about the plot would just ruin the fun.
Korinke embodies Lady Bracknell so convincingly, I never thought of him as being in drag. John Rensenhouse, in the first of his three supporting roles, is Algernon's regal, reserved manservant, Lane. And he's a scene-stealer in his other two supporting roles: the celibate and sexually repressed Chasuble and the very elderly country-estate butler Merriman (requiring a couple of Houdini-like quick costume switches).
The first of the play's three acts takes place in Algernon's London apartment, where the fireplace and wall paintings are set up shadow-box style, adding additional dimension to interesting effect. Jason Coale's set design and Shane Rowse's lighting bring outdoor sunshine and cheeriness to the garden setting of John's country estate in Act 2.
The period costumes (designed by Sarah Oliver) are a delight. The women's dresses are beautiful to behold, and the men's outfits, from their hats to the tips of their shoes, are colorful and appropriate to the time of day and to the indoor or outdoor setting. Algernon's day suit in the garden scenes speaks to his carefree personality, and Lady Bracknell's dress in Act 3 even sports a bustle.
If there were any slow moments, they were few, mere pauses from breakneck developments and verbal quips. A scene between Peterson and Liccardello, in a look at women's friendships, is very funny, and a fast-paced exchange between Sneary and Lanker, when Algernon complicates matters even more, is particularly dynamic.
After I saw The Importance of Being Earnest, I was actually in pain from my continuous smile. Who holds a permanently fixed grin for two hours? I rarely, if ever, do, and I went home with the soreness to prove it.