“The Importance of Being Earnest” is Oscar Wilde's most popular oeuvre and one of the most brilliant comedies in the English language. Wilde enjoyed satirizing late Victorian (1894) morals, manners and society; accomplished most notably in the glittering (and withering) aphorisms of Lady Bracknell. ( "Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die." )
He also relished the conceit of switched identities. The play's two protagonists, Jack Worthing (Cameron Knight) and Algernon (Andrew Goldwasser) engage in "bunburying" (the maintenance of alternate personas in the town and country) which allows them to escape Victorian social mores.
This being the fourth year of the existing MFA class, Artistic Director Sandy Robbins has integrated the students with the professionals of the REP Ensemble. Of all the productions witnessed by Aisle Say over the past 2 ½ years, “Earnest” was not particularly well cast and did not play to the strengths of the collective ensemble.
Goldwasser lacked the air of upper crust, the insouciant demeanor of the landed gentry and one born with a platinum spoon affixed firmly in mouth. Knight, on the other hand, projects an irrepressible glee in the service of his character. "Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?" Knight's movements and diction is superb, the latter aided in part by Director Steve Tague, himself a member of the REP and company diction and vocal coach.
Sandy Robbins eschews type casting his troupe. That is why last season's Maggie (The Cat on the Hot Tin Roof) is Lady Bracknell (Elizabeth Heflin). Wilde, through Bracknell, serves up some of the most clever opprobriums in English literature. Heflin did not maximize the opportunity.
Gwendolyn Fairfax (Caroline Crocker) and Cecily Cardew (Meaghan Sullivan), women who wish very much to be wedded to a man – any man – with the respectable name of Ernest.
For both women, appearances and style are important. Gwendolen must have the perfect proposal performed in the correct manner and must marry a man named Ernest simply because of the name's connotations. She believes in appearances, upper-class snobbery, correct behavior, and the ability to discuss, ad nauseam, the trivial. As such, Crocker can deliver a laugh line.
Cecily projects a woman a bit more sheltered than Gwendolyn and her character comes across as a naif. Both women are excellent and their interpretations make it clear they possess the common sense their suitors lack.
Two of the stars of the production are costumes and sets. Costume designer C. David Russell's achievements are simply spectacular. He puts Lady Bracknell in sumptuous overstuffed gowns suitable to her overstuffed personality. Aisle Say was reminded of The Queen of Hearts from “Alice In Wonderland”. Russell's choice of colors, his avid research to the Victorian period, his selection of gowns and suits is wondrous.
Paul Wonsek, Scenic and Lighting Designer deserves huzzahs commensurate with Russell. One could almost smell the lilacs in the lush country garden design.
Throughout REP's two years of existence, there has always been microscopic attention to detail with both sets and costumes. Sandy Robbins knows these intangibles are 'actors' as well.
Aisle Say suggests fiercely a season subscription to REP is a great value! It's unquestionably the best theatre in the state and the University should lobby to become part of the Philadelphia based Barrymore Awards.
Through November 6. Pttp.udel.edu 831.2204
Addenda: This the 5th month of no performing arts reviewer from the state's only daily newspaper. How can we be defined as a “World Class Destination” with no full – or even part time - theatre critic?