Perhaps it’s just fate, a roll of the dice, but in all the several years I’ve been reviewing the work of community theaters, I’ve seen two plays pop up over and over and over again, perennial blooms in the revolving seasons of repertory stagecraft.
One of them is Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, which I really wouldn’t mind never seeing again. The other is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, appropriately referred to by its author as “a trivial comedy for serious people.”
Ibsen is a great playwright, I suppose, though over time his tendentious, preachy qualities have come to gall me; I find him humorless to a fault.
Wilde is Ibsen’s polar opposite: witty, waggish and hilariously passive-aggressive, a satirist who raises frivolity to a divine art. The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde’s crowning achievement, is a feast of clever repartee and glittering one-upmanship, all of it bandied about among well-heeled people behaving badly — sort of Seinfeld for the Victorian drawing room.
Cottage Theatre’s current production of the play, directed by Alan Beck, is a straightforward rendering of Wilde’s farce about two friends, John and Algernon, and the double lives they lead (being, after all, “Bunburyists”) as they woo, respectively, a pair of women, Gwendolen and Cecily.
The playful, rapid-fire style of Wilde’s language would present difficulties for anyone, but the cast here does an admirable job. As Algernon, Josh Carlton shows a knack for portraying the sniffy arrogance of upper-class snobbery, though at times there were more manners than comedy in his delivery. Kory Weimer, as always, is strong, giving a sort of metrosexual flair to the earnest endeavors of John.
Jennifer Appleby, as the prim, proper and manipulative Gwendolyn, is good, as is Elizabeth Peterson in the role of her mother, the overbearing Lady Bracknell. As Cecily, Nicole Trobaugh, all sidelong glances and exaggerated erotic naiveté, is fantastic; more than anyone on stage, she seems to submerge herself in the charming insouciance that is Wilde’s forte.
Rounding out the capable cast are Steve Mandell as the Reverend Chasuble, James Scoggins in the roles of Lane and Merriman, and Karen Snyder, who gives a good turn as Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism.
The sets, designed by Beck, are lavish but not too lavish, and the late-Victorian costumes, designed by Ronda Turnquist, are just lovely. In all, the production is consistent and fairly orthodox, two words that, ironically, rarely come to mind when considering the life and work of Oscar Wilde, who once said that “consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”
Certainly, I don’t mean that in any vulgar or argumentative sense. I enjoyed the play, which, granted, I’ve seen more times than I can count. If I have any criticism, it’s that the production takes itself a bit too seriously, creating at times a level of formality that felt a bit stiff. Among the cast, Trobaugh seemed most at ease with the rambunctious nature of Wilde’s high-minded satire, and her energy and confidence might prove infectious as the play’s run continues.
This is a minor criticism, to be sure. Overall, Cottage Theatre’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest offers a lovely reprieve from the weightier civic dread that seems to have laid hold of us during these dead-serious days. In this sense, the play is indeed timely. It makes fun of our pretentiousness, our politics and our proclivities with equal vigor, making us all look rather ridiculous.
As Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” Or, you know, throw you in Reading Gaol.
The Importance of Being Earnest plays through June 25 at Cottage Theatre in Cottage Grove; $15-$25, tickets at cottagetheatre.org or 541-942-8001.