'Earnest' effort pays off at Theatre in the Grove
Some classic plays, no matter how engaging, can grow stale with endless repetition.
More than 120 years after its debut, this is still not an issue with Oscar Wilde's incessantly ironic, tightly written "The Importance of Being Earnest."
While the original play is set in late Victorian London, modern directors frequently place it in different milieus — in recent years I have seen it done in the post-Civil War American South, and (in Theatre in the Grove's current production) back in London, but in the 1930s.
Director Jess Reed and her cast show how seamlessly the show can move from era to era, place to place — a testament to the universal relevance and appeal of this superb farce.
Wilde acknowledges with his subtitle, "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People," that the story is quite silly.
Aristocratic bachelor Algernon languishes in a decadent life with his best friend Ernest, until he learns a shocking secret: both he and Ernest are leading double lives – Algernon frequently flees London to visit a fictitious ailing friend, "Bunbury", while Ernest is really the upstanding Hertfordshire gentleman Jack Worthing, guardian to the lovely Cecily.
Immediately intrigued, Algernon schemes to meet the girl. Jack, meanwhile, is in love with the aristocratic Gwendolen, who shares his passion but believes him to be Ernest. Add Gwendolen's tightly wound mother, Lady Bracknell (who is also Algernon's aunt) to anchor the plot, and Wilde's wit is launched on all of the foibles of an empty upper class.
The unusual decision to cast a woman (Anne Kennedy) in the role of Algernon really works. Physically, Kennedy's fantastic hairdo and tightly stuffed suits support the illusion, and her lines are spoken in a gender-free vocal register. However, it's really Kennedy's delivery that sells the role, and there's something really appealing about watching this woman play the part of the jaded wastrel. Her comic timing is spot on, and she does a nice job with the accent.
Mark Putnam (as Jack/Ernest) is a perfect foil — upright, dry, acerbic and even avuncular at times. While Kennedy is frequently sprawled on any available couch (inhaling every muffin in sight), Putnam stands ramrod straight, and delivers even his funniest lines with a slightly fussy gravitas.
Tonja Schreiber's "Gwendolen" is forthright and brassy — there's more than a touch of her mother in this determined young lady. She contrasts nicely with Lindsay Partain's "Cecily" — a bubbling, enthusiastic ingénue eager to trade her sheltered life for a passionate alliance with Algernon.
And then there's Pat Lach's "Lady Bracknell" — a ferocious social doyenne whose humble origins are no barrier to her savage snobbery. Her crisp delivery, upright carriage and amazing hats all reinforce her ironically self-righteous embrace of social conventions.
James Grimes' set design really captures the Art Deco feel necessary to create the feel of the 1930s. Flori Lima-Steele's costumes (especially the hats mentioned above) further enhance the period feel and define each of the characters.
Director Reed, her production team, and cast have crafted a really funny, very fresh production of Wilde's classic that should appeal to all fans of social commentary cloaked in razor-sharp wit.
"The Importance of Being Earnest" continues through June 18 at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.