For a play as juicy as Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” – among the greatest comedies in our language – you want a production that gives it a good squeeze. At the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival just north of Bucks County, where “Earnest” opened this weekend, you get every drop.
The festival’s version is as stylish – and as funny – as the 2011 Broadway revival of Wilde’s sophisticated skewering of Victorian society, class and manners. In that one, Brian Bedford both directed and cross-dressed, playing the haughty Lady Bracknell, who commands the young silver spoons around her with an absolute authority she generously gives herself. In this one, Jim Helsinger does the same double duty. He directs the play, and also formidably faces us down onstage, in perfect Victorian garb by costume designer Lisa Zinni, who works wonders dressing all the show’s class-conscious characters.
I’m not sure at what point Lady Bracknell, one of the theater’s grand and grandiose dames, became a drag role, like a more modern counterpart: Edna, the mother in “Hairspray.” Edna was played by a man from its cinematic start; Lady Bracknell has traditionally been a star-turn for older women who fit the part for looks and stature as much as for acting ability – Margaret Rutherford, for example. She once played the lady on Broadway, where the comedy first opened in 1895, the same year as in London. It has been revived there eight times since, with Bedford as the first male in the role.
At the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Helsinger gives us not just the girth and gall of the woman but also, surprisingly, something akin to her grace. Wilde himself cites Lady Bracknell’s “icy coldness” and the triumph of Helsinger’s performance is the vein of still-warm blood he finds somewhere deep in Bracknell’s Arctic character. For instance, when she first greets her nephew, Algernon (Zack Robidas), and his pal Jack (Blake Ellis), Bracknell sweeps into the room with an austere “I hope you are behaving very well” as her hello. When Helsinger delivers the line – as in many – you’d think he was a schoolmarm about to smack them, but somewhere in that delivery, there’s also a clear “hello.”
That sort of underlying warmth is what makes this production work so well. You can believe these entitled characters because they have human streaks, even though the show is played with a touch of cartoonish melodrama – or at least what might have passed for melodrama a hundred years ago. That stress on superficial airs is charming. Wilde, after all, was making fun of a class system whose highest level did nothing all day long with money they probably didn’t earn themselves, and shut out anyone who actually, say, worked.
Robidas and Ellis are excellent as the two men who have ready-made make-believe excuses to shun any situation that may be unpleasant or, more likely, that demands some responsibility. This “Earnest,” however, belongs not just to Lady Bracknell, but the two women who become the play’s love interests – Gwendolen (Alexie Gilmore) and Cecily (Erin Partin). The moment the sleek Gilmore takes the stage in the first act, the production — up ’til now, a rather formal and stiffly staged exchange of wits between the men — brightens. Her Gwendolyn mixes coyness with a sense of playfulness. In the second act, we meet Cecily, and Partin manages to out-coquette Gilmore; the now-famous scene in which the two women outrageously mask themselves in manners is a hoot and, as it should be, a highlight.
Add Suzanne O’Donnell’s portrayal of Miss Prism, in love with her mind, and Wayne S. Turney’s of Rev. Chasuble, in love with his sermons, and you have the makings of several finely displayed love mix-ups to be straightened out (or not) by the end of Act 3, and Lady Bracknell be damned. Or in this case, heartily laughed at by the audience._
“The Importance of Being Earnest” plays through August 4 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival on DeSales University Campus, 2755 Station Avenue in Center Valley, a few miles north of Quakertown. It will run in repertory – with almost the same cast, plus others – with Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” which begins July 18. www.pashakespeare.org or 610-282-9455.