By Christina Perryman
Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” first staged in 1895, has stood the test of time for many reasons. The play is a witty satire on the social ecosystems and conventions of London at that time, poking fun at everything from the society elite to marriage and everything in between. The show is very funny with layered characters and outrageous shenanigans, which culminates in a crazy case of mistaken identities. Audiences will be delighted with Walnut Street Theatre’s current staging of this classic, marvelously directed by Bob Carlton.
The show opens in the parlor of Algernon Moncrieff’s London flat. Algernon is awaiting a visit from his dragon of an aunt, Lady Bracknell, and his cousin, Gwendolen. While Algy waits for his relatives, his friend, “Earnest” Worthington arrives. Earnest, whose first name is really Jack, admits to Algy he is in love with Gwendolen and plans to propose. Algy, however, intent on mischief, wonders if Earnest is, forgive me, in earnest. Algy produces a cigarette case left after Mr. Worthinton’s last visit. The inscription is to Uncle Jack from darling Cecily. Jack is forced to confess — Cecily is his ward, and as her guardian, Jack feels compelled to be strict and upright, which contradicts with his desire to have fun and “get into scrapes.” Therefore, Jack invented a younger brother for himself, Earnest, who lives in town and gets into all kinds of trouble. Algy, in turn, confesses to his own imaginary friend — Bunbury, who is often ill and requires routine visits from his devoted friend, especially when Algy’s relatives are in town and Algy wishes to avoid a family party and other boring obligations.
Jack successfully proposes to Gwendolen but the happy couple meet resistance in Gwen’s uptight mother, Lady Bracknell, who takes offense to Jack’s being an orphan (“To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”), among other things. This is just the tip of the complication iceberg. Jack returns to his country estate to learn his “brother” has arrived from town and is shocked to find Algy pretending to the be the wayward Earnest. Algy and Cecily quickly form an attachment and before Jack can blink, are engaged. The arrival of Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell, along with both Cecily’s and Gwendolen’s declarations they could never love or marry anyone named anything but Earnest, lead the errant men on a hilarious adventure.
Walnut’s cast is wonderful. The main quartet, Jake Blouch (Jack), Daniel Fredrick (Algernon), Lauren Sowa (Gwendolen) and Alanna J. Smith (Cecily) are very talented and quite funny. The mannerisms and expressions of each perfectly capture the absurdity and humor of the situation. Fredrick’s Algy is a cheeky rapscallion, Blouch’s Jack is roguishly charming. Smith’s Cecily is a romantic and Sowa’s Gwendolen is a nice blend of practical and absurd. I enjoyed the playful way the actors interacted with each other. Sowa’s and Smith’s scene in Act II, when the girls discover they are both engaged to Earnest Worthington, is priceless. Their tones, their movements, their expressions are perfect.
Mary Martello is terrific as Lady Bracknell. Martello is one of the funniest actresses in the area. With a quirk of her eyebrow, a sneer of her lips or an incredulous tone in her voice, Martello is able to convey Lady Bracknell’s contempt, astonishment and sense of superiority. Indeed, Martello, Fredrick and Blouch are all able to convey the funniest parts of the play without speaking simple through their facial expressions.
Ellie Mooney (Miss Prism), Peter Schmitz (Rev. Chasuble), Kevin Bergen (Lane) and H. Michael Walls (Merriman) round out a stellar show.
The set, designed by Robert Koharchik, was stunning. Algernon’s flat in the first act was elegant, with much attention to detail. The garden of Jack’s country estate in the second act was stunning with plentiful flowers and a restful atmosphere. Costumes by Mark Mariani were well chosen. The men’s suits were impeccable, Cecily’s white dress was beautiful and befitting the age and innocence of the character while Gwendolen’s dresses were pretty and stylish.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” runs at Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, through April 30. Tickets are $20-$85. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday evenings, 7 p.m. Sunday evenings, and 2 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. There will be a special student matinee, 11 a.m., April 20. For tickets or information, call 215-574-3550 or 1-800-982-2787 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org or Ticketmaster.