As my introduction to the works of Oscar Wilde, I looked forward to catching A Woman of No Importance, now onstage at the Walnut. In 1893, a beautiful and wealthy American woman travels to England seeking to marry a titled aristocrat. Masterfully directed by the Walnut’s Bernard Havard, the show is a delightfully witty exposition of the social constructs of the Victorian era in all its fallible glory.
Welcome to Hunstanton Chase
The action opens on the terrace at Hunstanton Chase, where several British aristocrats are gathered along with the American puritan, Miss Hester Worsley (Audrey Ward). Lady Hunstanton (Jane Ridley) jabs at Worsley and her American values. The rapid-fire banter is filled with unpredictably amusing dialogue showcasing the subtle vulgarity and wit of England’s upper class behind closed doors. Mary Folino’s costumes lend proper grandeur to the Victorian era-fashion, marking each character’s station in society. Roman Tatarowicz’s set transports the audience to the luxurious terrace, drawing room, and hall at Hunstanton Chase.
When the play originally premiered, women held very few rights in comparison to men, and Wilde boldly addresses the double standards that pervaded the late-19th century. Almost every caricature of a woman appears here: vapid, witty, naïve, controlling, bold, religious, opinionated, and a woman scorned. Karen Peakes shines as the flirtatious Mrs. Allonby, expertly delivering numerous entertaining monologues on the difference between men and women as well as shockingly honest views on marriage.
Walnut veteran Ian Merrill Peakes returns as the assertive bachelor Lord Illingworth, expertly managing to make his contemptible character charming. His eccentric physicality on stage marks every movement as intentional and well-placed. Playfully embodying a character who has no regard for others, Peakes’s varied inflection in every word makes his dialogue even more engaging. Ian Merrill Peakes and Karen Peakes (a real-life married couple) supply wonderfully hilarious chemistry, each having met their match in a stimulating debate about the true nature of men and women.
Frivolity over heart
Mrs. Arbuthnot (Alicia Roper) and her son Gerald Arbuthnot (Brandon O’Rourke) are the only people without wealth who make an appearance throughout the play, highlighting the isolation between socio-economic classes at the time. A long-kept secret is exposed, revealing how honor cannot be bought. The non-stop poetic wit of the first acts gives way to a slower-paced drama in the latter half between Lord Illingworth and Mrs. Arbuthnot. The second half of the show is a bit less engaging without the humorous underpinnings, as the script’s strength lies in frivolity, not heart.
A Woman of No Importance manages to stay relevant in the 21st century by tackling timeless themes of secrets, betrayal, mistaken identities, revelations, and reputation. Onstage in Philly, Wilde’s brilliant satire continues to shine.
What, When, Where
A Woman of No Importance. By Oscar Wilde, directed by Bernard Havard. Through March 1, 2020, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia. (215) 574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
Walnut Street Theatre is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons wishing to purchase wheelchair seating should call (215) 574-3550, ext. 6, rather than ordering online.