Theater Review: Academy's Updated 'Earnest' Retains Both Relevance And Laughs

By: Ellen Petry Whalen

The cast of the Academy of Performing Arts' “The Importance of Being Earnest,” back from left, John Hanright, Meg Sullivan, Garry Mitchell, Ellen Birmingham; front, Helena Moran, Jeffrey Kelly and Karen McPherson. MICHAEL AND SUZ KARCHMER PHOTO

“Fake news” is a constant topic of conversation today, and Victorian playwright Oscar Wilde’s quote “The truth is rarely pure and never simple” gives us insightful words to ponder.

Almost 125 years old, Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is still relevant today and is currently creating many laughs at the Academy of Performing Arts.

This comedy of manners revolves around two Victorian bachelors, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, both of whom have their own creative way of escaping the duties and expectations of British high society.

Over cucumber sandwiches, Jack reveals to Algernon that he has made up a fictitious brother, Earnest, his alter-ego that he pretends to be when he is in town. Having fallen in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, Algernon’s cousin, Jack realizes his charade of being Earnest has become problematic when Gwendolen insists, “My ideal has always been to love someone of the name Earnest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.”

Equally creative, Algernon has made up an invalid friend called Bunbury that he uses as an excuse whenever he wants to get out of a tedious social engagement, like dinner parties with his aunt, the highly opinionated Lady Bracknell.

Matters of the heart for Algernon complicate the play further when he slips away to the country and pretends to be Jack’s wicked brother Earnest, so he can meet and court Jack’s fair young ward, Cecily Cardew.

As the dashing Jack, Jeffrey Kelly is very earnest with his delivery. He (along with the rest of the cast) has a wonderful British accent and is an entertaining comic foil to John Hanright’s flamboyant portrayal of Algernon.

Hanright captures Algernon’s laid back approach to gliding through life as a well-dressed and aimless aristocrat. Kelly and Hanright show off some delightful physical comedy as they fight over a much discussed plate of muffins.

Playing Gwendolen, Ellen Birmingham artfully embodies her character’s insightful line: “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”

The sweet Cecily is humorously portrayed by Nauset junior Helena Moran. Even though she is taught by a well-respected governess (Meg Sullivan), Cecily says the most absurd things: “But I don’t like German. It isn’t at all a becoming language. I know perfectly well that I look quite plain after my German lesson.”

Karen McPherson is the stuffy Lady Bracknell who has some of the funniest and most memorable lines, two of my favorites being, “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” And, “Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.”

The cast is rounded out by Garry Mitchell as the talkative reverend and Ethan Ehnstrom as the eye-rolling servant.

Director Maddie Williams wisely set the play in the modern day, making the language appear all the more accessible, as the cast checks their phones for the time instead of pocket watches. One altered line definitely caught the audience’s attention when an “uber” was called to take the meddling Algernon back to town.

Delivery is very important in this timeless three-act farce, and even though there were a number of stumbles opening night (which I’m sure will get smoothed out), Oscar Wilde’s witty and amusing dialogue did not fail to create repeated bouts of laughter. 

Details:

“The Importance of Being Earnest”
At The Academy of Performing Arts, 120 Main St., Orleans
Through Oct. 7
Information and reservations: 508-255-1963, apacapecod.org