Jack confesses his double life to Algernon and tells him how he is Jack in the country and “Ernest” in the city. He uses his fictional brother “Ernest” as an excuse to make frequent visits to the city. Unfortunately, upon proposing to Gwendolyn, Jack is hit with a double whammy. Gwendolyn’s mother, the imperious Lady Bracknell (Julie Lisnet), disapproves of the union, while Gwendolyn tells “Ernest” that his name is a large part of her love for him.
Believe it or not, it gets even more complicated when Jack returns to the country. It turns out that Jack’s young ward Cecily (Angelina Nichols) has developed a bit of an obsession about the fictional Ernest, despite the best efforts of her governess Miss Prism (Leslie Michaud). So when Algernon shows up at the country house claiming to be “Ernest,” Cecily immediately falls in love. When Jack comes home to find Algernon claiming to be Ernest, it can’t get any worse – right up until Gwendolyn shows up looking for her “Ernest.”
As you might imagine, hijinks most assuredly ensue.
“Earnest” has a complicated, convoluted plot. Attempting to explain too much would serve only to diminish the experience. Besides, while the story is certainly fun, the star of Wilde’s work is most definitely the language. The rapid-fire richness of Oscar Wilde’s words is unparalleled. Every single line is packed full of delicious double-talk, veiled puns and innuendo. The most vicious put-downs are wreathed in the language of civility, which serves to make them all the more cutting (and hilarious).
When you’re dealing with a show so reliant on dialogue – despite its two-hour-plus running time, there’s not a lot of action – you need strength at the helm. Director Ben Layman has previously demonstrated his talent for dealing with theatrical language through directing Shakespeare; directing Wilde isn’t so different. He has managed to take a largely static show and inject enough action to keep the proceedings moving, all without stealing focus from the performers.
The dual requirements of comprehension and pace could prove too much for some actors, but this cast proves more than up for the challenge. Greg Mihalik’s Jack is constantly calculating, forever trying to stay one step ahead of his own deceptions. It’s fun watching the cracks start to appear in Jack’s veneer of self-satisfaction. Algernon becomes all flamboyance and hedonism in the hands of Nathan Roach; he captures a wonderfully over-the-top foppishness that is a delight to watch. It might just be the best work we’ve seen yet from this veteran of local stages.
Julie Lisnet is all sneering condescension as the imposing Lady Bracknell. The character embodies all of the smug excesses of the upper social classes and Lisnet just nails it. She is imperious and clever and mean and a hell of a lot of fun. Amelia Forman-Stiles and Angelina Nichols are excellent as the refined, demure Gwendolyn and the barely-tamed country girl Cecily, respectively. They are vital in allowing the audience to invest in the situation despite its absurdity. Forman-Stiles is the perfect proper girl in love while Nichols brings an endearing coarseness.
Leslie Michaud is charmingly frazzled as governess Miss Prism, while Ron Lisnet brings a goofy affability to his portrayal of Reverend Chasuble. Randy Hunt and Susan Dunham Shane (who also designed the lights) offer some delightful comedic moments as the servants Lane and Merriman, respectively.
Set designer Chez Cherry has assembled an interesting, flexible set that, along with the lights, provides a wonderful backdrop to the proceedings. The costumes, designed by Rebecca Wright, serve to elevate things further; the stage was awash in big hats, cravats and hoop skirts that made for some lovely stage pictures.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is undeniably funny. Granted, it might not be “fart and fall down” funny, but we’ve got television for that. If you’d like to hear some of the cleverest repartee ever written for the stage, delivered by some folks who can handle it, head down to Ellsworth. The folks at the Grand have got something special for you.