By Manning Harris
The day before the opening of “The Importance of Being Earnest” in 1895, a reporter asked playwright Oscar Wilde if he expected his play to succeed. Wilde replied, “My dear fellow. The play is a success. The only question is whether the audience will be a success.” The audience was.
Georgia Shakespeare is presenting a sparkling version of the play, running in repertory through August 3, at the Conant Performing Arts Center on the campus of Oglethorpe University, directed by Sabin Epstein.
If you’ve never seen this play (but have perhaps read it in high school or college), you owe it to yourself to zip out to Oglethorpe, for you’ll probably never see a better live production of Oscar Wilde’s most famous comedy.
He is probably the wittiest writer who ever lived, and his lampooning of Victorian society in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” with its incomparable quips, quotes, and comments is a supremely enjoyable crash course in all things Oscar. I am happy to report that GA Shake has done him proud: Everything about this production is first-rate, from the “My Fair Lady” costumes by Christine Turbitt to the cracking cast.
What’s the play about? Oh, let’s see—a couple of young men about town masquerading as libertines, both of whom find the name “Ernest” very useful, for reasons too mysterious to reveal here. Their names are Algernon (Caleb Clark) and Jack (Joe Knezevich); Jack has set his cap for Gwendolyn (Courtney Patterson) and Algy is smitten by Cecily (Ann Marie Gideon). All must deal with Algy’s aunt, the formidable Lady Bracknell (Mark Cabus).
Yes, her ladyship is portrayed by a man, and Mr. Cabus’ performance is a triumph of wit and restraint. It would be easy to overdo with excessive mannerisms, campiness, or flamboyance (and this is true for the entire play), but he doesn’t; instead he’s a delightfully stern and starched British dowager, reminding me somewhat of Dame Maggie Smith.
Director Epstein and this cast have the good sense and theatrical acumen to realize that there’s only one star of this show—Oscar Wilde—and they wisely get out of the way, while bringing their “A” games to the piece. The three acts of the play fly by, making this a most bracing and satisfying evening.
In another sexual role reversal, the servant Lane is portrayed by Megan McFarland; Merriman, Chris Kayser; and Rev. Chasuble, Allen O’Reilly. All three prove that there are indeed no small parts, as theatre folk like to say. Finally, Marianne Fraulo plays a prim Miss Prism, rounding out this exceptional cast.
I must also observe that Mr. Knezevich has never been better, his star quality (that’s what it is) never more evident. Loyal patrons of GA Shake will notice that he and the wonderful Ms. Patterson have made quite a team this summer (e.g., “Much Ado About Nothing); theirs is a professional partnership with a history. Mr. Clark (he’s probably tired of hearing this) resembles a young Oscar Wilde: an unconscious tribute.
Mr. Wilde was born about a century too early; that’s another story. Meanwhile, don’t miss his finest work, playing in repertory with “Much Ado” and “Illyria: A Twelth Night Musical.” Oh—the Conant Center has wonderful air conditioning—so go.
For information and tickets visit gashakespeare.org.