OREM — As a critic, when I critique a show that has been a part of the theatrical repertoire for as long as The Importance of Being Earnest has been, I have to wonder what a theatre company felt was still relevant about this show that audiences in 2021 would still resonate with. Especially in the days of covid, where theatre is scarce (and live theatre even more so), why did the creative staff at Hale Center Theater Orem feel this production was worth producing over others.
Perhaps one reason was simply the size of the cast. With only eight players, director Rodger Sorensen could easily ensure that there were safety protocols in place that would keep the cast feeling comfortable during the pandemic. HCTO has also worked to keep the audience safe by reminding the audience to stay in masks, keeping distance between groups in seating, and trying to have distance when buying concessions and having people use the restrooms during intermission and exiting the building.
As for the production, the classic story follows the adventures of two young men who have gotten themselves into a bit of a situation where they have not been quite truthful with the women they are pursuing, which leads to confusion and hilarity. Jack Worthing (played by Adam Packard) is courting Gwendolen Fairfax (played by Becca Ingram), who harbors a desire to be courted by a man named Earnest. So, pretends his name is Earnest to satisfy Gwendolen. Subsequently, he has a ward named Cecily (played by Sasha Fazulyanov) to whom he has told tales of a fictional Earnest in order to explain away many absences so that he can spend time with Gwendolen. Cecily harbors a desire to have romance and dreams of meeting Earnest, something that Worthing’s friend, Algernon (played by Jordan Nicholes), takes to his advantage. Cecily also confesses her desire to be attached to a man named Earnest, and a desperate attempt to change names ensues, along with strong attempts at interference by Lady Bracknell (played by Anne Swenson) to remain prudent within all of this romance.
MaryAnn Hill designed the commendable costumes for this production. From the excellence of the hats that each of the ladies wear down to the dapper shoes of the gentlemen, it was a delight to these clothes on stage. I was especially impressed by the outfits in the last act, and how each couple coordinated with each other in an esthetically pleasing way that was—in a word—adorable, but not too cutesy or ornate. I also appreciated how the costume of Miss Prism (played by Jayne Luke), Lane (played by Kye Tanner), and Reverend Canon Chasuble (played by Jon Liddiard), were slightly understated—as would be expected due to status—but still with fantastic details and aesthetics.
One of the reasons Oscar Wilde’s script has remained popular is the humor has aged well. For example, in the second act right Jack and Algernon argue about the situation of their romantic pursuits over tea and muffins, and the tea and muffins become more important than the romance itself. As a person who loves muffins perhaps more than romance, the laughter that I felt was much needed after a difficult week, I felt very pleased to be laughing over two grown men fighting over the last precious carbohydrate. Wilde has created many delightful moments like this, and Sorensen has worked hard to get his actors to pull out every laugh that they can from the script.
I have a love-hate relationship with theatre-in-the-round, but Sorensen and the cast showcased the strengths of the arrangement. Much of Wilde’s dialogue has a narrative style, and having the actors deliver it to different areas of the audience ensured that everyone felt included. Another choice that worked in the round was Sorensen’s decision to break the fourth wall and have actors deliver comments to the audience. But, the difficulties of staging and acting in the round were still apparent at times such as when Lady Bracknell she delivered vital plot information, while all I could see was the back of her head. These moments are nearly unavoidable in the round, but it can still be frustrating for newcomers to the play, like my daughter, who was disappointed in not being able to see the character and watch the facial expressions that are key to many humorous moments.
Notwithstanding minor problems with the staging, it was a nice escape to have a few hours of levity during a stressful time. Wilde’s script, with all its humor and romance, are still relevant as 2021 begins. The Importance of Being Earnest is a worthwhile production that can bring a splash of joy and levity to audiences suffering from the covid blues.