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‘The masks we wear’

SANTA FE, N.M. — It premiered more than 100 years ago, but “The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People” is still staged regularly to this day.

Local director Barbara Hatch, who described the 1895 Oscar Wilde comedy as “universal,” said she thinks the play has remained relevant largely because Wilde found a way to “capture humanity right on the nose” through humor and frivolity.

“We all recognize ourselves in these characters,” said Hatch. “Because we’ve all done these things on some level or another without maybe admitting to ourselves or to others, but this is kind of what we do. We wear this mask, we try to be something that we’re not, yet at some point we really discover who we are, and we have to live with it because, boom, this is what you’ve got.”

The play, directed by Hatch, is being produced at the Santa Fe Playhouse.

Vaughn Irving, left, as Algernon Moncrieff and Hania Stocker as John Worthing in Santa Fe Playhouse’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” (Courtesy of Carrie McCarthy)

The story follows two friends, John “Jack” Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, both of whom find out the other has created an alter ego for himself as a way to escape everyday life. Jack leaves the countryside to visit his fictional brother Ernest in the city and takes on that name when in London. Algernon tells his friend that he’s has concocted a similar scheme to escape the city from time to time. Algernon visits Jack’s country home while pretending to be Jack’s brother “Ernest.”

As the story evolves, both men propose to women – Gwendolen and Cecily – who erroneously think their fiancés’ names are Ernest. Eventually, both men are exposed, but a twist ending reveals that Jack actually has the name he claimed all along – without even knowing it.

“There’s a lot about truth and lies, a lot about humanity in terms of the masks we wear,” says Vaughn Irving, artistic director of the Santa Fe Playhouse who plays Algernon in this production.

“Is there really truth and untruth?” Irving added. “In this play, not really.”

Irving said he feels Algernon is Wilde’s most autobiographical character. Algernon is constantly trying to figure out who he is throughout the play, similar to what Wilde did his entire life.

The Irish playwright grew up in the lower classes, but ended up among the social elite while at Oxford. Hatch said Wilde was constantly trying to reinvent or rediscover himself.

While some of the play’s characters are hiding behind figurative masks, Hatch noted that, conversely, Wilde made them incredibly honest – more so than people are in real life – in terms of exposing their true selves.

“They really say it like it is,” said Hatch. “They state who they are; they don’t hide anything.”

The theme of Santa Fe Playhouse’s current season is “Finding Our Way” and Irving said this classic play fits perfectly. Though the show is a comedy, both Hatch and Irving say it goes much deeper than many realize.

“People watching it will walk away with a sense of really having seen a lot of people go through a lot of growth, discovery and self-discovery in a very comedic and amusing way,” said Hatch.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” will be staged Thursdays-Sundays until Dec. 16. The show also stars Hania Stocker, Christina Comer, Triana Reid, Ann Roylance, Jennifer Graves, Ken Bordner, Kev Smith and Patrick McDonald.

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