Sometime after my daughter’s fourth (or maybe fifth) time through Jane Austen’s Emma, which we started reading in anticipation of the Guthrie’s production last year, I decided to dust off my old copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest to see if she was ready for the next level of Victorian satire. Suffice it to say, she so thoroughly consumed the material that she could probably recite the entire second act (her favorite) from memory. You can therefore imagine our delight upon finding out that the Guthrie would be staging a production of Earnest this fall.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, the facts are these: Mr. John Worthing leads a double life. By inventing a fake scoundrel brother who frequently needs rescuing, he has an excuse to escape his dull country life whenever he likes. He’s Earnest in London, and Jack in the country. His best friend in town, Mr. Algernon Moncrief, has an equally fabricated invalid friend named Bunbury. When Algie discovers that Earnest is not his friend’s true identity, he absconds to Jack’s country house and pretends to be the scoundrel Earnest, only to discover that this borrowed identity is a bit more than he bargained for! Hijinks ensue, with Wilde skewering the hypocrisy and indolence of High Society all the while.
It has been more than a decade since the Guthrie last staged a production of Earnest; it was long overdue for a return. Wilde’s commentary is razor sharp and still feels relevant. This delightful comedy is a fast-paced marvel of comedic timing and wit. The actors have long scenes with rapid-fire dialogue and the jokes come so fast and furious, the actors barely have time to breathe between the setups and the punchlines. Everything needs to come together just right and they nail it. If you have been listening to an audio recording of a live performance on repeat (as we have in our house for the past month), you might have caught a line or two that went slightly awry here and there, but nothing that would get in the way of a roaring good time.
The play features a sleek, elegant set design. The actors seemed to fill the space and make it feel lived in, especially during the first act. The costumes that were well set for the Edwardian time period, but this belies a bewildering directorial choice. By choosing to shift the events from 1895 to 1905 (in order to accommodate the less-restrictive ladies’ fashions of the time and reflect women’s relatively greater empowerment, according to dramaturg Carla Steen), the production muffles just how transgressive Wilde’s portrayal of his female characters was at the time. Jane Fairfax, Cecily Cardw, and most especially Lady Bracknell, are exceptionally strong, forthright, and commanding presences. They leap from the page fully as equals (if not greater) before their male counterparts, with agency far beyond what would have been expected of Victorian society ladies. That Wilde managed to foresee a time when women stood toe to toe with men, to the point where we hardly even notice the power balance in 2023, is a testament to his genius that is clouded by the decision to move the setting forward a decade.
In all, Earnest is a raucous delight for all that should not be missed.
The Importance of Being Earnest is at the Guthrie Theater though October 15, 2023. Tickets start at $29.
Photo by Dan Norman