Author: Alan Bresloff
There is nothing like enjoying a summer evening, under the stars, watching a play. This is an experience that can only be offered in the summer months and thank goodness for the theater companies who are invested in sharing this experience with local audiences. One of these companies, Oak Park Festival Theatre, now in its 40th season, is presenting one of the jewels of comedic theater, “The Importance of Being earnest”, by Oscar Wilde in its summer home at Austin Gardens located at 167 Forest Avenue, in Oak Park. This quaint little park is just North of the downtown area on Lake Street and just East of Harlem avenue. While it is hard to believe that a theater can be this close to the action of a city like Oak Park without interference, I must tell you that with the exception of a few planes overhead, there is no interference from the world surrounding us as we escape into the wacky world of Wilde.
Directed by Kevin Theis on a stage nestled under some beautiful trees, we, the audience, sitting either on chairs brought, or rented, or in the bleachers, are taken back to a day in the late 1900′s , where Wilde takes us on a journey of traditions and customs. Our main character is John Worthing ,Jr. (well-played by John Croswaithe) who is in town to propose marriage to his beloved Gwendolyn (an adorable portrayal by Elise Kauzlaric, who truly has this character down). During his “courtship” with her, he uses a different name, Earnest, and told her that he has a brother, that does not exist. He uses this “brother” as a reason to get away from his country home to visit Gwendolyn. John has a ward, Cecily ( the adorable Brooke Hebert) who lives in his country home . This is a play filled with mistaken identities as both Jack and the other major male role, Algernon (deftly handled by Jude Willis) also has an alter-ego, Mr. Bumbly, who he uses as an excuse to leave the city and head off to the Country.Sound confuring? This is the “Wilde” way.
What we witness during these two acts (roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes with a 15 minute intermission), is the truth about each of the men, the women that they love and as in many of Shakespeare’s comedies, answers to many questions that we have amassed along the way. It is satire with some very comic moments, thanks to a sharp cast who truly understands the satire as written and knows how to pause at the right moment. This is truly a break from our everyday lives and a few hours of relaxing with the elements and some great comedy that is also filled with truths of life. This, by the way, was Wilde’s last play as he followed up the opening of this original production with his being placed in prison. He had a knack for having characters in his plays that represented some of the more regal folk of England and so, feathers were ruffled and in those days, an author would never win.
This is a fun production and well played in every detail. Impressive performances by Belinda Bremner as Lady Bracknell, Mark Richard as the very funny Reverend Chasuble, Linda Shadrake as Miss Prism who opens up the “rest of the story” and Brian Rooney who gets his share of laughs as Lane, The butler.The set by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod is scaled down because we are outside and the sound of the wooden stage does get pronounced a bit due to the body mikes carrying so well ( to offset the street sounds and planes, I guess). The musical interludes before the play and during are a mixture of period sounds and handled by Joshua Dumas. Rachel Sypniewskis’ costumes are glorious and the lighting by Danile Friedman, illuminating. The props by Jesse Gaffney are the icing on the cake.
What makes this production so nice is the comfortable surrounding and the feeling of friendliness that you get from sharing this experience with the others in the audiences. They come from all over and even on a night when the forecast was for rain, over 80 people showed up and had a wonderful experience. The play begins at 8 p.m. so you can park and walk over to Lake street where there are many types of restaurants to either dine at or pack up a bag and bring it to the park. This production will continue through August 23rd with performances: