Play Review: Wilde’s ‘Earnest’ wit has sparkle to spare at Oak Park Festival Theatre

Catey Sullivan | Sun-Times Media                     

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 (respectively) Gwendolen Fairfax (Elise Kauzlaric) and Cecily Cardew (Brooke Hebert). 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 garden of barbed delights and a scathing critique of Victorian Era societal mores. As Algernon and John natter on about cucumber sandwiches and the ennui of formal dinners, they also provide a blistering scathing satire on the prevailing attitudes about class, gender, religion and family. (“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.”)

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. Algy and John are a dynamic duo of repartee, but it’s Bremner’s Bracknell who provides the spine of the show. She embodies the apex of Victorian morality, materialism and hypocrisy. Bremner 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. Bremner looks like she just swallowed a bad clam as she delivers Lady Bracknell’s arch ultimatum: “I would strongly advise you, Mr. Worthing…to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over.” It’s one of many small, perfect moments when comedy and social critique perfectly mesh.

Bremner anchors “Earnest” both comedically and satirically, but she’s surrounded by a mostly apt ensemble that delivers Wilde’s rapid-fire dialogue with aplomb. Crosthwaite makes Wilde’s words sound utterly natural and spontaneous, while capturing the flummoxed frustration of a young man who must defang a 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 is flat-out hilarious, stealing (or rather, contemplatively ambling off with) every scene he’s in. The Reverend Chausuble 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.

The cast is enriched by terrific design work. Costumier Rachel Sypniewski has crafted marvelously elaborate period gowns and gloriously ornate feathered hats for Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen while outfitting Cecily in a character-enhancing tea-length gown of blushing roses. Scenic designers Jacqueline and Richard Penrod’s representation of upper-crust town and country abodes in fin de siècle England is lovely. On balance, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is packed with both style and substance. Moreover, it’s somehow wonderfully fitting that such sparkling text should play out under the stars.