Reassurance of "Being Earnest"

Oscar Wilde's classic is theatrical comfort food

By Christian Carvajal on April 28, 2010

I first saw Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest from the wings:  I played Lane the butler 20 years ago in one of my first polished productions, so of course I had to smile as I watched director Mike Wilkinson's version at Paradise Theatre in Gig Harbor. The Paradise, which looks like a private home from outside and used to be the Gig Harbor Christian School, is an easy 10-minute drive past the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.  I'll come back.

Jeff Richards' set for Act I seemed rudimentary at first - just a few foam flats hanging from black curtains - but his set dressing and furniture were appropriate, his lighting polished.  Classical piano set the scene as Peter Knickerbocker's Lane entered and tidied the room just so, a grace note I wish we'd used in our college production. It's the comedy of manners you're most likely to have read or seen, so surely I don't have to rehash the plot?  Just in case, think three-act domestic sitcom with famously droll dialogue, obvious foreshadowing and comic misunderstandings.  It's Frasier with crumpets.

Wilkinson assembled a talented cast, many from outside Gig Harbor.  There's obvious care and quality in the production, from Vicki Richards' lovely costumes to posh English accents that vary from good enough to really quite exceptional.  So why did I find myself unmoved by Act I?  One of the downfalls of performing Wilde is that his wit is so consistently sharp, actors are tempted to give each line equal weight and intensity.  That, coupled with the concentration required to mimic an alien accent, can lead to flatness and a dearth of spontaneity. This defect lessened considerably in later acts.

Luke Sayler's Algernon addressed the audience directly in the first few minutes of the show. Once, but never again.  Breaking the fourth wall occurs rarely in classic comedies of manners, so it's important for director, actor and audience to know why it's happening. We didn't. That being said, Sayler brings subtlety and grace to one of theater's most charming rakes.  Nathaniel Jones' Jack has a bit of the con man about him, not at all inappropriate.  But Earnest lives or dies by its ladies, and this production benefits from the pretty, witty charms of Shannon Burch as Gwendolen and Julia Sinnott as Cecily.  These are among the most coveted roles in all of comedy, and it was a pleasure to spend time in their company.  Kristen Hulscher seemed younger and, frankly, more attractive than the standard Miss Prism, but she struck me as a fair match for Jon Elston's romantic Reverend Chasuble.

What seemed at first like an unfinished set wound up facilitating rapidly sweeping scene changes in Acts II and III.  (Even Sayler appeared startled by the changes; he hit his head twice on a garden arch.)  Lighting remained beautiful throughout, but an emphasis on pink gels in Act II led nearby audience members to wonder at what time of day it was set.

Earnest is an ageless classic, part of the canon.  Having seen Shakespeare's comedies transplanted to locations all over the world, I wonder:  Would it be possible to make Earnest sexy, or to set it on an antebellum plantation, or a Japanese village, or another planet?  It might be fun to watch someone try. 

What we get from Paradise is theatrical comfort food: a straightforward version that takes no such risks, yet reminds us why we like Earnest so much in the first place.

Paradise Theatre

The Importance of Being Earnest

Through May 9, 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, $10-$22,

9911 Burnham Dr. NW, Gig Harbor, 253.851.7529