The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde's best known and most produced play, approaches perfection for its witty lines, likeably eccentric characters, and extraordinary coincidences. Written in 1895, it's a nearly foolproof comedy. Unlike Shakespeare's plays, Earnest resists changes in period and setting and denies extreme directorial interpretations that add modern commentary or cynically challenge the play.
But people still try. Philadelphia's Mauckingbird Theatre Company scrambled the main characters' genders, which celebrated the play's charms without distortion. Many productions poke fun by casting a man to play Lady Bracknell, on the tiresome assumption that a man in a dress is always hilarious; even robbing a woman of a certain age of this plum part doesn't hurt the play.
Which is all to say that the Walnut Street Theatre's mainstage production of Earnest doesn't innovate or experiment, and that's fine. Veteran theatergoers and the play's admirers will find a traditional production in most respects, directed by Bob Carlton for brisk clarity.
Robert Koharchik's sets -- for Algernon's London flat and Jack's country-house terrace -- are tall and pretty. The first, which is fitted in front of the second, reduces the playing area to the point where Carlton's actors face traffic jams, but it's still richly detailed in domestic finery. The impressively solid three-story country house frames Act II’s garden terrace (really Wilde's second and third acts combined, a pragmatic yet unfortunate choice and the production's biggest misstep) and colorful flowers bloom everywhere. Stuart Duke's lighting maintains a bright, happy tone.
Mark Mariani's Edwardian costumes match the scenic splendor. The young gentlemen, Daniel Fredrick as Algernon and Jake Blouch as Jack, are tall and handsome. Their romantic interests, Lauren Sowa’s Gwendolyn and Alanna J. Smith’s Cecily, dress like pretty, frilly dolls.
This is what big stages are for: to be filled with beautiful stuff and people. Wilde knew it, and so does Carlton.
Wilde's romantic plot is delightfully ridiculous, peppered with quotable maxims this cast never rushes, and I'll resist reciting it here except for my favorite line: "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." Couples unite with the inevitability of young love and pesky social concerns about parentage resolve through hilariously silly coincidences, as does the young ladies' insistence that their husbands be named Earnest: "Your Christian names are still an insuperable barrier," they announce in unison -- but Wilde cleverly solves this too, and it's all great fun.
Every role gets a convincing accent and whip-smart articulation. What a delight to experience truly smart characters and talented actors who know how to say smart lines and hear each other's, too! The young couples, Mary Martello’s Lady Bracknell, Peter Schmitz’s country parson, and Kevin Bergen’s and H. Michael Walls’s arch servants all deliver. Only Ellie Mooney, as governess Prism, overacts indulgently, forgetting that Wilde's dialogue needs no push to make it funny.
As with Shakespeare, The Importance of Being Earnest requires patience from its audience. Our 21st-century ears must adjust to Wilde's rat-a-tat style. My audience didn't laugh much at first, but this soon appeared to give way to relaxed enjoyment.