As the witticisms bubbled up into a delicious froth on opening night of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” I found myself pining for a modern-day Oscar Wilde, someone to paint society in all its ugly hypocrisy and yet make it supremely amusing at the same time. That’s when I realized that Wilde may indeed have been reincarnated. If you’ve lapped up episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” while cringing at the selfish motivations of Larry David’s characters, you might not be so different from a theatergoer at the London première of “Earnest” in 1895.
Wilde’s play needs no updating to appeal to today’s audiences, and director Michael Halberstam wisely allows the characters to speak for themselves in this charming production now at Writers Theater in Glencoe.
The full title of the play, “The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” speaks to what Halberstam set out to accomplish: “mining [the play] for truth, human connection and emotional complexity.”
The title also contains the meta pun around which the action spins. Being earnest is a worthy character trait, but being christened “Ernest” becomes the practical goal of two young British toffs, John “Jack” Worthing (Alex Goodrich, hitting just the right note of vulnerability) and Algernon Moncrieff (Steve Haggard, who stumbles a bit in his diction in Act 1 before hitting his stride in Act 2, turning a platter of muffins into a hilarious high-stakes battlefield).
Pals Jack and Algernon discover the name Ernest is guaranteed chick bait for the iron-willed ingénues they respectively wish to pursue, Gwendolen Fairfax (Jennifer Latimore, in a delightful performance) and Worthing’s 18-year-old ward, Cecily Cardew (played enchantingly by Rebecca Hurd).
These blissfully benighted young people could use some mature supervision. What they receive instead is the close attention of Algernon’s jaded aunt, Lady Bracknell, smartly played by Shannon Cochran. Rounding out the fine cast are Anita Chandwaney as Miss Prism, Cecily’s distracted governess; Aaron Todd Douglas as the Reverend Canon Chasuble; and Ross Lehman as both town and country butlers, sardonic in the city and inebriated in the sticks.
Perhaps the biggest stars of the show are the stunning scenic design by Collette Pollard, perfectly matched to Mara Blumenfeld’s flawless costumes. Oscar Wilde took a strong interest in design: when he visited Chicago to lecture on decorative arts and the philosophy of dress, he famously slammed the Water Tower as “a castellated monstrosity.” I suspect he would have been unable to curb his enthusiasm for the beauty of this production of his work at Writers Theatre.
Photos: Michael Brosilow
The Importance of Being Earnest
Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Through Dec. 23, 2017
writerstheatre website/Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes with two intermissions
Tickets $35 – $80 at (847) 242-6000 or Writers Theatre