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St. Louis by Richard Green

The Importance Of Being Earnest

There's still time to find a terrific gift for Oscar Wilde's 150th birthday (coming up October 16th). And why not get him something you'll enjoy, too?

About 90 minutes east of Kansas City is the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre, a professional operation in the midst of rolling cornfields. It's as though you'd plunked a swanky production company far out in the middle of a Thomas Hart Benton painting. Wilde's great comedy, The Importance Of Being Earnest, is on stage there in repertory this month: an ideal sesquicentennial tribute, featuring an exceptional cast of actors.

"Don't be surprised if you're sitting next to some farmer," I was warned, in an ominous tone, the night before driving the 140 or so miles west of St. Louis (I graciously declined to mention that most of my aunts and uncles were farmers). In fact, it turned out to be some inveterate Kansas City theatregoers who were seated next to me. In front of me was someone else who sounded like a bit of an expert on Wilde, himself (though that doesn't rule-out the possibility that he was in fact, a farmer even so).

The theatre itself is relatively new and very spiffy, built on to the back of the original, a former country church, celebrating its 45th season on a wooded hill. After an electrical fire April 30th, they report they are working to rebuild their theatre dormitory on-site. For you, several bed and breakfasts are located nearby, if you don't want to drive back to friendly Kansas City, with its elegant Country Club Plaza and newly restored Union Station.

But on to the play, itself.

Saint Louisan Bruce Longworth directs with his usual flair for smart bits of comic business and suitably overt stylish pacing. The script is as much fun as ever, a regular amusement park of whiplash, turnabout humor and insight. Mr. Longworth has mercifully left nearly all of the corn outside in this production. And by the time that last, famous phrase is uttered on stage by the excellent John Watts as Mr. Worthing, I genuinely had goose-bumps from re-living the classic comedy so completely.

Michael McClain designed the lovely sets, which change faster than you can even keep track of, at the ends of acts one and two. The highly superior costuming is by John Metzner. Very good sound design by an uncredited man or woman - probably Mr. Longworth or Quin Gresham, the artistic director, who also plays the unapologetically fey Algernon Moncrief.

I saw the opening performance of this incarnation, so please excuse me if I am caught in that gray area between nit-picking and unconditional love: As I say, this is truly an exceptional cast, in which Equity actors outnumber their non-union scene-mates, five to four (including the two servants). Quin Gresham settled into a wonderfully blithe delivery of Wildean epigrams by act two, in the very first performance, on a Wednesday afternoon. My first reaction to his Algernon was one of stunned admiration, at his fearless foppishness in the hustings.

Mr. Gresham is very fine, but when you put him next to the outstanding John Watts as Mr. Worthing, Earnestophiles will immediately sense trouble looming: Mr. Gresham is built like a grown man (trim but powerful in appearance), while Mr. Watts is as slight as a teenager, with a callow voice (and a fantastic grasp of Jack Worthing's humorous plight). It is more than passing strange that the smaller, more timorous of the two should prove to be the senior partner in the relationship.

Gary Wayne Barker, as Lady Bracknell, is cheeky and strangely endearing, fulfilling the dream of nearly every male actor I know, playing the dragon in damask. He underplays considerably: Cooing where you think he'll sneer; reflecting nobly and poetically when you think he could have pounded a satin-gloved hand on the top of that elegant fainting couch in act one. He is as commanding as Lady Bracknell should be, without ever going over the top (though his giant, poofy shoulders by costumer Metzner do more than their share of scene-stealing). Somehow, with his probing and insinuating manner, I (for the very first time) saw Earnest as a bit of a mystery-suspense play, with his Lady Bracknell as the unstoppable sleuth, very nearly in the mode of Margaret Rutherford (as Miss Marple, in the 1960s MGM/Britain movies). Brava, Mr. Barker.

Gwendolyn is by far the sportiest character in the play, embodied by Vanessa Claire Smith, with her impetuous defiance of her mother (Mr. Barker) and her adoration of (herself on the arm of) Mr. Watts. She's not as crazy as some other Gwendolyns I have seen, but her authenticity is rather wicked, as she tosses her nose in the air, taking proud ownership of this young lady's byzantine philosophies of life.

And this, of course, is the great appeal of the play: No one escapes without a ridiculous philosophy to proudly call their own. Each one still resonates today, 110 years after the play's debut (although George Bernard Shaw wasn't exactly wacky about it in 1895). Chelsea Jo Pattison is Cecily, delighting in every moment of girlish discovery, thrilled with the drama of everyday life, and the acquisition of her own personal views. She makes an excellent foil to Ms. Smith, putting the charm of the parochial against the slyness of the cosmopolite.

As their scene together was just about to begin, I confess that I told myself, excitedly, and now, the greatest two-girl comedy scene ever written! Ms. Smith and Ms. Pattison nevertheless maintain their composure (up till that horrible breaking point involving the mysterious Earnest) and play through with a minimum of forced gentility, and a nicely disguised loathing for one another. It's all done with a smooth pace and regular humanity, though I can't quite recall whether pinkies are raised to their full height over tea, or not.

Not much later, as you probably know, they become staunch allies against their male deceivers. Elegant glassed French doors are "clicked" shut in perfect partnership, and difficult confrontations are soothed by the swishing together of their late Victorian traveling and garden clothes. Director Longworth whisks the girls this way and that, around their suitors, in a great show of feminine superiority, despite all the nonsense that comes trippingly off of these two fine actresses' tongues.

As the third couple in the play, we have the immaculate Alan Knoll as Dr. Chausable, and Kat Singleton as the perfectly balanced (or, should I say, perfectly unbalanced) Miss Prism. She is the actual reason for the air of suspense and mystery, along with Mr. Barker as Lady Bracknell. From very early in our acquaintance, we clearly sense A Terrible Secret burdening Miss Singleton's Prism. "My sister-My daughter, My sister-My daughter," you can almost hear her thinking (like Faye Dunaway, in Chinatown) as she first mentions a literary effort of her early years. Or, in her case, it might be, "My three-volume romance novel - my innocent baby in the carriage," over and over. A tremor of comic guilt races through her as she conducts an afternoon's German lesson in the garden.

The best thing about Mr. Knoll's Chausable is that he avoids complete emasculation, and ineffectuality, while finding every laugh in his embarrassed, self-conscious clarifications, "my allusion was to bees ..." and so on (as in, "I would cling to your lips ..."). Michael Kateman and Daniel Black play the servants, and I can't help thinking they must endure some onerous hardship off-stage in this production, as director Longworth allows them both to indulge in the usual Lane/Merriman type of eccentricities. But it does only the slightest damage to the overall effect.

"A life crowded with incident," as Mr. Barker says, in Lady Bracknell's intimate, relentless examination of Miss Pattison's Cecily. She might just as easily have been speaking of the playwright, himself, of course. How rewarding, that his glorious wit survives both him, and his enemies, to this day. Well worth a country drive, on a summer's day or evening.

The Importance Of Being Earnest continues in repertory with Barefoot In The Park, You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, and The Glass Menagerie at the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre, through August 28th (2005). The theatre is located along Missouri state highway 41, north of I-70. For details, lodging information, and ticket orders, visit the website at www.lyceumtheatre.org/indexpda.html or call 1-660-837-3311.


-- Richard T. Green

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