WEST JORDAN — The challenge in presenting an iconic piece like Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is that everyone knows it, everyone has seen it, and each person has their favorite production, against which a new one must compete. For me, the new Sugar Factory Playhouse production met every challenge, setting the bar for which future community theater Earnests will have to vie. Director Kristen Hickman met the challenges head-on and successfully.
That action involves two young men-about-town facing the social obligations of town and country in Victorian England, and their use of invented figures to make it easy to navigate between obligations and pleasures. Jack Worthing, a country-dweller (played here by Anthony VanDongen) has invented a younger brother, Ernest, a ne’er-do-well who lives in the city, whom he visits whenever he wants to see Gwendolen Fairfax (played by Tesia Brown). Gwendolen’s cousin, Algernon Moncrieff (played by Andrew VanDongen), has a sickly friend, Bunbury, whom he visits whenever his Aunt Augusta (played by Denise Gull) invites him to dinner. Jack’s ward Cecily Cardew (played by Stacey Haslam), takes a romantic interest in Jack’s non-existent brother, and when Algernon finds out about Jack’s “excessively pretty” ward, he visits the country disguised as Brother Ernest, to woo her. Confusion abounds until both make-believe characters have to “die,” so the inevitable resolution can take place.
But the getting there is all the fun, helped along by two imperturbable butlers (played by Scott Herring and Wes Baran), Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism (played by Heidi Scott), and her inamorato Reverend Chasuble (played by Mark Fotheringham). The whole thing is a satire of Victorian concerns for status, family, rank, and pedigree, honored here, as in actual Victorian England, as much in the breach as the observance.
The stage at Pioneer Hall is inadequate: no problem. Hickman and Amanda Herring designed black on white backdrops for the three settings that convey perfectly the spaces required. These open out, as it were, from a book, making set changes easy. Hickman chose to open with just the book, having the two butlers and a maid set the furniture for the first scene. The point was, apparently, to establish the distance between Upstairs and Downstairs, but I doubt that the audience got it. More likely they joined me in wondering why the delay in getting to the action.
To keep the action fresh, Hickman invented many clever pieces of “business” for her actors to perform, using double-takes, choreography, tableaux, pairings, and pantomimes to keep audience attention where she wanted it. It is truly a tour de force, and completely invisible to the average theater-goer (as it should be). This is the mark of a good director, and we will be sorry to lose Ms. Hickman for the next two years, though Canada will be the richer for her sabbatical.
Earnest is a rapid-fire collection of Wilde’s best witticisms, epigrams, and inversions of received wisdom. These have to be delivered by the actors in such a way that newcomers to the play catch them, and old-timers find them fresh. In this performance, the actors were very attentive to that necessity. No one will get them all the first time; there are just too many, but the rest of us can welcome them as old friends.
The two (really three) pairs of lovers were admirably matched, with plenty of chemistry to keep me engaged. Having actual brothers play Jack and Algernon gave that additional pairing a bite it might otherwise not have had.
While the set was simple, the costumes were not. Costume designer Bri Bedore has decked out the two upper-class couples like peacocks, and if not strictly period, they were certainly eye-catching. Even the town butler, Lane, sported more lace on his shirt-front than was really called for. While less striking, the costumes for Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism were perfect in their detail.
So catch this production. It’s a good one, even if you know the play by heart. And if you can take along a young one, to give them an introduction to one of the most sparkling purveyors of clever dialogue, in Oscar Wilde, don’t miss the opportunity.
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