Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Rebeca's review of The Children
A Woman of No Importance focuses on a group of British socialites who have gathered for a weekend of mild-mannered frivolity at Lady Hunstanton's (Jane Ridley) large country estate. They are joined by a young American woman named Hester Worsely (Audrey Ward), whose brutally honest opinions of British society shock her companions and endear her to one earnest young man in the party. When Gerald Arbuthnot (Brandon O'Rourke) is offered a job as personal secretary of the irreverent Lord Illingworth (Peakes), it seems like the perfect way to prove himself worthy of Hester's affection. However, things get more complicated when Gerald's mother Mrs. Arbuthnot (Alicia Roper) turns up and recognizes one of the other guests.
Peaks is an absolute joy to watch, but he is not the only one who turns in a memorable performance. Martello is hilariously dour as overbearing Lady Caroline Pontefract, and Bedford is extremely funny as the easily influenced Lady Stutfield. Roper gives Mrs. Arbuthnot a grace and seriousness that is crucial to the success of the production. O'Rourke plays son Gerald with a sincerity that is adorable. There are some weak links too. Ward comes up wanting as youthful upstart Hester with speeches that are difficult to follow and motivations that feel bizarrely inconsistent.
Much of the play's humor is meant to come from the witty repartee and there are indeed some deliciously witty exchanges, particularly where Peaks is involved. Unfortunately, too much of dialogue feels stilted and unnatural. Cast members struggle to maintain their British accents and overcome the most dated material in Wilde's 126-year-old script. Some of the references are too obscure to be inherently funny (what is a lumber room?) and a few of the jokes are actually offensive. One quip about a man who beats his wife created a tangible sense of discomfort among the stunned audience at the performance I attended.
Lush costumes and an innovative set pick up some of the slack. Mary Folino's lavish costume designs are beautifully detailed right down to the lining of Lord Illingworth's well cut coat. The interiors and exteriors by set designer Roman Tatarowicz are all done in black and white (or off white), making the action spring to life like a story in a book. Under Shon Causer's lighting A Woman of No Importance is a visual feast worthy of the most elegant company.
Once again, it appears that Walnut Street Theatre was unable to find a single actor of color for this production. Hopefully, the next show will feature more diversity and fewer British accents, although that scoundrel Lord Illingworth would probably object to both.
A Woman of No Importance runs through March 1, 2020, at Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or visit www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org or Ticketmaster.