When it was first produced in London in 1895, the play was criticized for being trivial and superficial.
The plot revolves around two aristocratic young men leading double lives. Algernon has invented an invalid named Bunbery as an excuse to get out of the city. Jack has invented a brother named Earnest so he can escape into the city. When Jack tells Algernon that he must “kill off” Earnest because his beautiful ward Cecily has become infatuated with him after hearing Jack’s invented stories, Algernon goes to the country pretending to be the non-existent Earnest. Meanwhile, Jack is in love with Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen, but her mother – the gruff Lady Bracknell – refuses him permission to marry her after learning that he is an orphan: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Worse still, baby Jack was found in a handbag at Victoria Station: “To be born, or at any rate bred, in a handbag, whether it has handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life.”
Wilde’s play is riddled with dozens of such brilliant lines. But of course for them to be effective requires expert delivery. Fortunately, the entire cast, with one small exception, handles the witty dialogue (and precise characterizations) with assured dexterity.
Debi Kierst is appropriately brusque and forbidding as the greedy and extremely class-conscious matriarch Lady Bracknell; as Jack, Micah Linford gives by far the best performance I have yet seen him give, expressing aspects of himself I have never seen on stage before; Joe Dallacqua is perversely impish as Algernon; Lauren Albonico is fabulous as Gwendolen, changing intention instantly with perfect insouciance; Caroline Patz is excellent as Cecily, the charming country girl living out a fantasy concocted in her head.
My only quibble is with Eddie Dethlefs’ Rev. Chasuble. While his characterization is spot-on, he is unable to handle Wilde’s pyrotechnic language.
Kierst’s attention to detail extends beyond the marvelous performances. Even before entering the theater proper, the spectator is greeted with an array of period photos, including many of Oscar Wilde himself. Kierst and his designers – in this case, set designer Ryan Jason Cook – do a fabulous job, even changing the pictures when we move from the city to the country and back again.
Set changes are sensibly handled during the intermissions and done in character by the actors playing the butlers: Gerry Sullivan and David Burton, who are both wonderful, by the way.
This is an altogether outstanding show and not to be missed.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” plays through May 14 at the Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE, Albuquerque. Go to vortexabq.org or call 247-8600 for reservations.