To celebrate Oak Park Festival Theatre's 40th anniversary, the company is staging "The Importance of Being Earnest" for the first time. Oscar Wilde's classic 1895 comedy promises theatergoers a fabulously fizzy and fun time, and it's a marked contrast to the seriousness of the company's previous outdoor show, Shakespeare's "Hamlet."
And since the second act of "The Importance of Being Earnest" takes place in a garden of an English grand estate in Hertfordshire, the show certainly feels at home outdoors in Oak Park's Austin Gardens.
"The Importance of Being Earnest"★ ★ ½
Location: Oak Park Festival Theatre at Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park, (708) 445-4440 or oakparkfestival.com
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday; through Aug. 23
Tickets: $27; $22 seniors; $15 students; kids ages 12 and younger and dogs admitted free
Running time: About two hours, 15 minutes with intermission
Parking: Street parking and nearby parking garages
Rating: For general audiences
Wilde's zinger-filled script is both playful and razor-sharp at dissecting upper-class obsessions and double-standards over surface appearances, titles and wealth. Despite the lightweight reputation of "The Importance of Being Earnest," it hints at darker aspects of Victorian double-lives in the way that the plot hinges on two of its leading bachelors adopting the phony name of "Earnest" during the course of the play to deceive friends and family in the pursuit of advantageous marriages.
Staging "Earnest" these days also cleverly capitalizes on the current craze for "Downton Abbey." Fans of that British TV costume drama will spot how the haughty Dowager Countess of Grantham, portrayed so memorably on "Downton Abbey" by Maggie Smith, is a direct character descendant of Wilde's Lady Bracknell (masterfully played in Oak Park by Belinda Bremner with an appropriate imperiousness and blithe unawareness of her often ridiculous pronouncements).
So if you've never seen "The Importance of Being Earnest," by all means go and see Oak Park Festival Theatre's production. But for die-hard Anglophiles who have seen many productions of the play before, the casting choices in Oak Park miss the mark at times.
For the central romantic couple of Jack Worthington and Gwendolyn Fairfax, "Earnest" director Kevin Theis has cast John Crosthwaite and Elise Kauzlaric. While the two deliver their lines with aplomb and get plenty of laughs, both look a little too old for their roles of giddy lovers in their 20s. Crosthwaite's British accent also slips now and then, especially when Jack becomes exasperated and cross.
As Jack's self-indulgent friend Algernon, Jude Willis appropriately plays the role as a spoiled, pleasure-loving brat. Yet he sometimes treads dangerously close to directly addressing the audience rather than vocalizing his internal thoughts aloud.
Brooke Hebert makes for a decidedly fresh, and tall, Cecily Cardew -- Jack's ward and a wildly romantic girl who dreams up entanglements in her diary that soon fall upon Algernon.
Along with Bremner as Lady Bracknell, Oak Park Festival Theatre's "Earnest" is blessed with strong supporting character performances, notably Lynda Shadrake's overenthusiastic tutor Miss Prism and Mike Richard's slightly spacey Reverend Chasuble.
Director Theis may overplay some of the physical humor. The gag about the seemingly automatic opening of double doors ultimately felt out of place, while Victorian propriety would certainly frown upon the exaggerated way many minor characters pine for their intended targets.
So even if Oak Park Festival Theatre's take on "Earnest" isn't the most ideally cast, it does give audiences an enjoyable evening out under the stars. It's also a fitting party piece to commemorate a 40th anniversary.