During the late 1800s in London, England – in a climate of prudishness and classism – especially among the aristocratic elite – playwright Oscar Wilde turned social convention on its ear by penning his farcical tour de force, The Importance of Being Earnest – subtitled, “A Trivial Play for Serious People.” Director Bill Hurlbut is currently taking on this scandalous comedy of manners at the highly lauded Silver Spring Stage, but instead of keeping it in the Victorian era, “pushe[s] the furthest bound of the social conventions represented in Wilde’s play” by setting it in a more liberating time – the Roaring Twenties – and does so with wild success.
Earnest protagonists Algernon Moncrieff and John Worthing, J.P. (a.k.a., Jack,) are superficial, upper-class dandies who are ever-so-tired of societal expectations, and live double lives in order to escape them from time to time. Algernon has a fictitious friend named Bunbury who develops a mysterious new ailment that needs tending to every time Algernon wishes to avoid a social engagement – which is rather often. Jack is in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax – a lovely but fierce young woman with bobbed hair, bee-stung lips and a flapper-esque fashion sense. She has had the lifelong ambition to marry a man called Ernest – “a name that inspires absolute confidence.” So, in the city, Jack is known as Ernest. However, at his country estate, Jack goes by his real name – or “Uncle Jack” to his ward, the hopelessly romantic Cecily Cardew.
Up until now, Jack has been able to successfully hoodwink his city friends. But on this particular day, he slips up and forgets that his cigarette case reveals his true identity – in the form of an inscription that reads “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.” When Algernon discovers Jack’s duplicity, he gleefully admits that he had always suspected Jack to be a “Bunburyist” just like him. But that’s not the end of Jack’s “Bunburying.” Everyone at his country home believes that when Jack goes into the city, he is visiting his troublesome younger brother, named (wait for it…) Ernest. Amusingly, Cecily believes that she and Ernest are engaged – in spite of the fact that she has never met him (and that Ernest doesn’t actually exist.)
The Importance of Being Earnest has quite a lot of exposition – especially at the beginning of the show. Without careful direction, the action could easily lag and become tedious. Fortunately, in this production, the banter and witty repartee between Jack (Noah Rich) and Algernon (Nicholas Temple) flies so fast and furious their exchanges are never boring – even when they sit for long periods. Although his Jack/Ernest is just as much a “Bunburyist” as Algernon is, Rich manages to bring out an underlying sweetness that makes you want to trust and root for him – in spite of all the reasons not to. As Algernon, Temple is Jack’s foil – oozing mischief and a smooth Eddie Haskell-like charm – especially when he speaks to his aunt, Lady Bracknell, played by the highly entertaining Susan Holliday. When Lady Bracknell learns that Jack/Ernest has asked Gwendolen (Emma Wesslund) to marry him, Holliday’s frenetic, yet somehow deliberate litany of rapid-fire questions about Jack’s suitability for her daughter puts her on par with only the most high-powered attorneys, and it is hilarious to witness.
With a breezy delivery and devil-may-care attitude that can easily turn into disdain, Wesslund masterfully channels her inner flapper as Gwendolen Fairfax, and in the style of silent film actresses comically purses her perfectly painted cupid’s bow and opens her eyes to almost caricaturish proportions, usually when she is not pleased. Although Cecily Cardew, played by Camille Pozderac, is a stranger to the sophisticated world Gwendolen enjoys, Pozderac chooses to emphasize the fire in Cecily’s loins for romance instead of her relative innocence and inexperience, which makes Pozderac’s Cecily interesting and eminently watchable. The two women, like Jack and Algernon, are perfect foils, and seeing them play cat-and-mouse throughout the play is incredibly humorous. Rounding out the cast are the very talented Karen Fleming as Cecily’s tutor, Miss Laetitia Prism; Stephen P. Johnson as Reverend Canon Chasuble; and Tom Schiller in the dual roles of Lane and Merriman.
On the technical side of things, Maggie Modig and Malca Giblin have created visually stunning sets that utilize period-appropriate furniture and décor, intricately painted flats and beautifully designed marble columns, all of which can be shifted around to create Algernon’s flat in Act 1, the Garden at the Manor House (Jack’s country estate) in Act 2, and the Drawing Room at the Manor House in Act 3. It’s not easy to maintain accurate British accents on stage, but dialect coach Gary Sullivan has done an amazing job training this cast. There isn’t a weak link among them. Hair and makeup guru Maureen Roult successfully works her magic to bring the look of the Jazz Age to life.
However, the pièce de résistance of this production is Linda Swann’s magnificent costume design. Algernon is a 1920s fashion plate who is always dressed to the nines – from his carefully coiffed and oiled wavy hair down to his rakish polka dot socks – giving him an almost foppish appearance that really works. Jack/Earnest’s wardrobe is equally grand, but more understated, and it perfectly captures his character’s quieter, more thoughtful nature. Gwendolen’s gorgeous drop waist dresses and sparkly headbands take center stage whenever she appears, while Cecily’s look is simpler, reflecting her uncomplicated background. Across the board, Swann’s vision is spot on and makes an already delightful show even more appealing.
While The Importance of Being Earnest is standard fare for many community theaters, this version stands out due to its brilliant acting and exceptional production values. It is well worth your time to see. It’s even family-friendly. Bottom line? If you need a laugh or two, this is definitely the show for you.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 35 minutes with two intermissions.
The Importance of Being Earnest plays through June 8, 2019 at at Silver Spring Stage, located in the Woodmoor Shopping Center— 10145 Colesville Road in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets call the box office at 301-593-6036 or purchase them online.