"The Importance of Being Earnest" - ★ ★ ★ ½
Oscar Wilde's 1895 comedy "The Importance of Being Earnest" is a towering text of the English language. Wilde's wry wordplay is wonderful, but the play also has a conscience by uncloaking many abhorrent absurdities of British Victorian society via clever and callow laughs.
Thankfully, Writers Theater in Glencoe is more than up to the many challenges of staging "The Importance of Being Earnest." Director Michael Halberstam assuredly serves up a breezy and stylish Victorian delight that all but conceals the hard work that has gone into meeting the play's myriad demands.
Halberstam deploys a diverse cast that expertly takes to Wilde's heightened comic style. Not only are company members technically on point with crisp and precise delivery of their dialects, they also delve deep into the honest emotional motivations of each character. The ensemble members also strives to keep their dialogue spontaneous and fresh, even though Wilde's non sequitur statements and mocking of melodramatic plot machinations have all been meticulously constructed.
"The Importance of Being Earnest" centers around John "Jack" Worthing (Alex Goodrich) and the impediments in his romantic pursuit of the society beauty Gwendolen Fairfax (Jennifer Latimore). First and foremost, there's Gwendolen's unyielding "gorgon" of a mother, Lady Bracknell (Shannon Cochran). She is a shallow martinet to maintaining rigid Victorian class divisions, so Lady Bracknell finds Jack's uncertain parentage to be wholly unsuitable.
Jack's close friendship with Gwendolen's dissolute cousin, Algernon Moncrieff (Steve Haggard), is more of a hassle than a help. Like Algernon, Jack has coincidentally created a fictional persona to cover up for his bad behavior (Jack's cad about town is named "Earnest," while Algernon's conveniently sickly country relation is called "Bunbury").
But things soon unravel for Jack when both Gwendolen and his hopelessly romantic teenage ward, Cecily Cardew (Rebecca Hurd), bizarrely obsess on the name Earnest and all that it represents. Ultimately there is a happy ending, but not before the Rev. Chasuble (Aaron Todd Douglas) and Cecily's tutor, Miss Prism (Anita Chandwaney), also get pulled into the plot's tidy solution.
Collette Pollard's adaptable cool and marbleized set is both functional and luxurious as it switches locales via rotating backdrops of a yellow drawing room, pink floral garden and green library. This changing color scheme is also picked up as eye-popping accents to Mara Blumenfeld's plush Victorian costumes, which are dominated by grays and bold black-and-white patterns.
Halberstam goes against recent high-profile casting trends of having men in female drag playing Lady Bracknell. But Cochran's scene-stealing appearances as the all-surface Lady Bracknell prove to be one of the production's dearest pleasures.
Perhaps the only quibble is Halberstam's and actor Ross Lehman's decision to make the butler Merriman a just-functioning drunkard. The enthusiastic laughs that greet Lehman's slowed stumbling all feel a tad too easy.
But largely Writers Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" is a classy paragon of comedy style and sophistication. It's also an exemplar of how the show must go on, even as controversies and uncertainties swirl behind the scenes.
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Location: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org.
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday (also 3 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 22 and Dec. 20; no show Nov. 23), 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday (no evening show Dec. 3); through Dec. 23
Running time: About 2 hours 25 minutes, with two intermissions
Parking: Area street parking
Rating: For general audiences