Wilde’s ‘Earnest’ wit has sparkle to spare in Oak Park
By Catey Sullivan For Sum-Time Media July 30, 2014 1:36PM
Belinda Bremner (far right) starred in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" at Oak Park Festival Theatre in July. This month she's directing a radio play version of Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray."
importance of being
◆ Through Aug. 23
◆ Oak Park Festival Theatre, Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 23.
◆ Tickets, $15-$27
◆ (708) 445-4440;
Updated: September 2, 2014 6:13AM
If you like your humor dry and your comedy subversive, you’ll want to make your way to Austin Gardens to see Oak Park Festival Theatre’s witty and well-paced staging of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
It takes a few moments for the show to start firing all cylinders; early on, some of Wilde’s dazzling satirical quips wit doesn’t quite land. But under the able hand of director Kevin Theis, “Earnest” is mostly delightful.
Set in late 1890s London and the nearby Woolton countryside, the plot is classic rom-com: Algernon Moncrieff (Jude Willis) and his best mate John Worthing (John Crosthwaite) fall in love with Gwendolen Fairfax (Elise Kauzlaric) and Cecily Cardew (Brooke Hebert), respectively. The dashing young gents must then convince the draconian dowager Lady Bracknell (Belinda Bremner) to give her blessing to the nuptials.
Within that framework, Wilde embeds a garden of barbed delights and a scathing critique of Victorian-era societal mores. As Algernaon and John natter on about cucumber sandwiches and the ennui of formal dinners, they also provide a blistering, scathing satire on prevailing attitudes about class, gender, religion and family. When it premiered almost 120 years ago, “The Importance of Being Earnest” had audiences in gales of laughter. One wonders if the gentry ever figured out they were laughing at themselves.
There’s plenty to laugh at and to ponder in Oak Park’s production. Algernon and John are a dynamic duo of repartee, but it’s Bremner’s Lady Bracknell who provides the spine of the show; she embodies the apex of Victorian morality, materialism and hypocrisy. Bracknell enters with the unimpeachable gravitas of a Medieval fortress. A Gimlet-eyed moral arbitrator of all she surveys, she condemns John’s status as an orphan as a shocking moral failure.
Crosthwaite makes Wilde’s words sound utterly natural and spontaneous, while capturing the flummoxed frustration of a young man who must defang and scale a Gorgon in order to wed his love. As a metaphor-spouting reverend enamored of Cecily’s tutor Miss Prism (Lynda Shadrake), Mark Richard as the Rev. Chausuble) is flat-out hilarious, stealing (or rather, contemplatively ambling off with) every scene he’s in. It may be a comparatively small role, but Richard wrests maximum comedy from it.
Kauzlaric is marvelous as Lady Bracknell’s daughter, Gwendolen, a young woman in the nascent stages of turning into her mother. And Hebert colors Cecily’s innocence with a wild streak of odd, funny, and daffy defiance.
It’s with Algernon that “The Importance of Being Earnest” falters a bit. Willis is a shade too puckish and twee, more spritely than sophisticated. He would do well to tone down the twinkliness and dial up the jadedness, just a hair.
On balance, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is packed with both style and substance. It’s wonderfully fitting that such sparkling text should play out under the stars.