Oscar Wilde was the contemporary of Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and George Bernard Shaw, among many others. Both Wilde and Shaw were Irish playwrights, which allowed the two men to hold each other in mutual esteem, while not exactly in friendship. Critics were attacking Wilde’s other play from 1895, An Ideal Husband, which prompted Shaw to rally to Wilde’s defense. Shaw said of Wilde that “He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre.” This is especially true of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Wilde’s last play The Importance of Being Earnest now at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia is a sparkling, true production of this masterpiece. It is sobering in these turbulent times to realize that a few months later Wilde would be imprisoned. A great artist stilled in his prime. However, we can see The Importance of Being Earnest right now with a marvelous cast playing in a clear, no nonsense high style which elicits the triumphant spirits and wit inherent in the work directed by Bob Carlton.
The design team produced a beautiful production. Robert Koharchik, Scenic Design; Mark Mariani, Costumes; Stuart Duke, Lighting; and Elizabeth Atkinson, sound, created an absorbing world. We felt as if we actually were in London, 1895.
The actors were a joy. Daniel Fredrick as Algernon Moncrieff was outstanding. With spot-on timing, he performed with just a soupcon of archness, which added the right spice to his character. If Susan Hampshire and John Gielgud had a love child, it would be Daniel Fredrick. Jake Blouch was John (Jack) Worthington, an excellent foil to his friend, Algernon. His Jack was very different, yet consonant with the role he played in the story. Three of the women were no less intriguing. Lauren Sowa as Gwendolyn Fairfax, Alanna J. Smith as Cecily Cardew, and Ellie Mooney as Miss Prism displayed excellent comedic timing. Outstanding were the two men who played the butlers. Often throwaway and thankless roles, Kevin Bergen as Lane, Algernon’s Manservant, and H. Michael Walls as Merriman, the Butler to the Manor House, controlled the scenes they appeared in to the audience’s frequent delight. Peter Schmitz was one of the finest Reverend Chasubles in memory. Last, but definitely not least, in the role of Aunt Augusta was Philadelphia’s answer to Irene Worth and Patti Lupone, Mary Martello. Martello’s Aunt Augusta was measured and thoughtful, while displaying excellent comedic timing in a beautiful performance.
This is the second time Philadelphia has seen Mary Martello and Daniel Fredrick together. They were last seen in an estimable production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession. We have the pleasure of seeing them both together again. Should we hope for further pairings of this duo, in say Sweet Bird of Youth, or Suddenly, Last Summer? The mind is hyperactively imagining other plays and other roles: The Picture of Dorian Gray, a dramatized Death in Venice, or The Three Sisters (perhaps with other fine actors like Julie Halston and Dan Hodge, or many actors from The Importance of Being Earnest’s cast). Philadelphia can dream.
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest will be on stage at the Walnut Street Theatre until April 30. Next will be Saturday Night Fever, May 16 through July 16. At the Independence Studio on 3 will be Jerry’s Girls, April 4 through July 2. For more information and to purchase tickets, you may call 215-574-3550 or visit www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org
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