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The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest
Corn Stock Theatre

June 22-30
By Douglas Okey

It’s almost a shame that the title of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest is too long to allow a regular airing of its little-known subtitle: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. The good news is that the play is so delightfully funny that audiences have no reason to care about such trivial matters. The small opening-night crowd at Corn Stock Theatre thoroughly enjoyed Wilde’s play, at times positively howling with laughter. The cast under the direction of John Johnson lovingly brings to life the vacuous characters that drift through Wilde’s late-Victorian world on oceans of tea and sherry, amid outcroppings of cucumber sandwiches and tea cakes.
Wilde’s story takes up one of the most common comic themes in drama: mistaken identity. Young aristocrats Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff have each, independently, created fictional characters that allow them occasionally to escape their social obligations and indulge their romantic whims. For Jack, this means leaving the responsibilities of his country estate and living in London as his own fictional younger brother “Ernest.” When Algernon, who has befriended “Ernest” in London, discovers that “Ernest” is really Jack, he reveals that he has invented for himself an invalid friend named “Bunbury” as an excuse to leave London and carouse about the countryside. These separate narratives will collide with outrageous but predictable results when Algy decides to visit Jack’s country estate in the guise of prodigal brother “Ernest” for the purpose of wooing Jack’s eighteen-year-old ward, Cecily.

Part of the joke, of course, is that these young aristocratic types have nothing better to do. If they take trivial things seriously—eating, dressing, playing the piano—it’s because they’re bored. Pursuing a young girl to marry her, as Algy does with Cecily and Jack does with Gwendolen, Algy’s cousin, is just one more amusement, a way to keep the ennui at bay. Scratch the surface of these characters, in other words, and you’ll find more surface. The indomitable and hilarious Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother, approves of Jack’s smoking, for example, because “a man should always have an occupation of some kind.”

The play fairly bursts with such lines, of course, as Wilde is the undisputed king of the epigram. This play, in fact, has been criticized as merely a vehicle for Wilde’s one-liners. “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” See? Lift it out of the play and it rings even truer than in context.

Johnson’s cast embraces this dialogue and their characters with suitable panache. Jeff Craig as Jack is as stuffed a shirt as you’ll find in an upper-class British townhome. Lindsey Kaupp as Gwendolen is beautiful, guileless and utterly vacant—not to mention very funny. Cassandra Irwin’s Cecily demonstrates definitively what happens to a mind left too long on its own. And Caleb Finley seems born to play Algernon, languid and leisure-stricken. Lady Bracknell, a plum role played historically by both women and men, goes to Helen Engelbrecht. Engelbrecht, while lacking the Wagnerian presence and stentorian delivery often associated with the part, delivers ably and humorously. Excellent supporting performances are turned in by Paul Gordon as Dr. Chasuble and Jillian K. Rebmann as Miss Prism, with the servants, played by Del Bohm and Nate Downs, as always the most dignified characters onstage. If the characters from “the country” seem to have accents from THIS country instead of Britain, that puzzling detail is soon forgotten amid the laughter.

Performances of The Importance of Being Earnest continue through June 30, 7:30 PM nightly with tickets at $12 for adults and $10 for patrons 18 and younger.  Tickets are available by calling 676-2196 (Box office hours are 10 AM to 5 PM, Monday through Friday and one hour prior to showtime.) or online at

Posted June 25, 2012

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