“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing,” observes Gwendolen in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” That line serves as a mission statement for Oscar Wilde’s comedy — the urtext for all drawing-room witfests that followed in its footsteps (which were undoubtedly left by highly polished shoes). Oak Park Festival Theatre’s alfresco staging, directed by Kevin Theis, mostly keeps a balance between style and sincerity that translates well in the arboreal splendors of Austin Gardens. Unsurprising, perhaps, given that much of the action in “Earnest” takes place in a country garden.
Indeed, there isn’t much in the way of surprises here — unless seeing Lady Bracknell played by an actual woman, rather than a Wildean version of a panto dame, counts as a surprise. That would be Belinda Bremner, who brings a fine blend of acidulous and incredulous to her line readings as the dragon-lady aristocrat whose daughter, Gwendolen (Elise Kauzlaric, in suitably pretentious bluestocking mode), is determined to marry Jack Worthing (John Crosthwaite) — but only because she thinks his name is really Ernest. Which it is, but only when he is in town. In the country, you see, he is the guardian of young Cecily (Brooke Hebert), who thinks that Ernest is her Uncle Jack’s dissolute brother, whom she’s never met. What happens when the worlds of town and country collide is complicated, and utterly pointless. Which is very much the point.
Plot is the cucumber sandwich Wilde tossed to the late-Victorian dogs so that he could burgle the upper classes of their shallow dignity through volley after volley of aphorisms designed to expose their shallowness. Sadly, of course, the aristocracy would quickly have the last laugh. Within months of the triumphant 1895 opening of “Earnest,” Wilde lost his ill-advised libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry (the loutish father of Wilde’s own aristocratic lover, Lord Alfred Douglas) and would end up broken and imprisoned for “gross indecency.”
Finding coded hints of Wilde’s homosexuality in “Earnest” has become its own parlor game, but Theis decides to play it straight, if you will. True, Jude Willis’ Algernon Moncrieff, Jack’s hedonistic friend (and Gwendolen’s cousin) who courts young Cecily in the guise of fictive brother Ernest, has his fey side. But he’s really more like fast-talking Harold Hill in “The Music Man,” with waspish whimsy in place of, well, earnestness. By contrast, Crosthwaite’s Jack feels a bit more behind-the-eight-ball in his machinations, as suits one whose lineage stretches back to Victoria Station and a handbag. “With two handles!” he exclaims to Lady Bracknell as he tries to make his case for marrying her daughter, with predictable results.
Theis keeps the action smartly paced, and his ensemble mostly resists the urge to go big in the great outdoors — a good thing, since overplaying is deadly for this play. Bremner lets her facial expressions do the heavy lifting rather than unleashing extra lung power in her line readings, which paradoxically makes Lady Bracknell at least potentially more fearsome. Who knows what she’s holding in reserve behind Rachel Sypniewski’s tightly buttoned costumes?
So — nothing radical or unexpected unfolds here for those who already know the play. But the company delivers a sincerely stylish take on one of the enduring workhorses/show ponies of British comedies of manners — and one where you can bring your own picnic of tea sandwiches and muffins.
When: Through Aug. 23
Where: Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $27 at 708-445-4440 or oakparkfestival.com