Don’t miss “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Whidbey Playhouse
— Created February 22, 2022 by Kathy Reed
By Kathy Reed
Whidbey Playhouse in Oak Harbor invites everyone to enjoy a brief getaway from the daily grind and travel back in time to Victorian-era London, where ladies and gentlemen comport themselves in an upright, staid manner and with the utmost decorum…until they don’t!
The Playhouse’s production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” lays bare those very things in this delightfully witty and humorous play. Fortunately, there are six more live performances and an opportunity to watch the production on demand, so those interested have several chances to see this comedy. Performances are Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 and at 2:30 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 27.
Wilde’s play, first performed in London in 1895, has been reimagined and reworked numerous times. But director Tamara Sykes is of the opinion one shouldn’t mess with perfection.
“It’s Oscar Wilde. It’s the funniest show ever written, pretty much,” she said. “It’s got good characters, it’s got fantastic lines, the comedy. It’s got melodrama, it’s got romance, it’s got everything. If you’re gonna do something, you might as well do it all.”
The cast of “Earnest” has come together to deliver an entertaining production that is staged simply, but effectively. The modest sets are completed by the costumes, which leave no doubt as to when this production is set. But just because something was written nearly 130 years ago doesn’t mean its message isn’t relevant today.
“I think the story actually has a lot to say to right now about what’s really important, about surfaces, looking below the surfaces, about judging people on who they are rather than what you think they are or what they look like,” Sykes said. “It’s the difference between the surface and the depth, the shallows and the deeps. I think there’s something for all of us to pick up in all that.”
The story focuses on Jack Worthing (Andrew Huggins), who has invented a fictious brother named “Ernest,” who he uses as an excuse to get out of various social gatherings and occasionally impersonates. Gwendolen Fairfax (Shealyn Christie) knows Jack as Ernest and has fallen in love with him, and with his name. But Jack’s good friend, Algernon Moncrieff (Jim Waters), falls head over heels in love with Jack’s ward, Cecily (Marianne Campos), and he also impersonates Ernest to win her heart. So, two women are in love with Ernest, who really doesn’t exist.
Enter Lady Augusta Bracknell (Ingrid Schwalbe), who will not give Jack permission to marry Gwendolen if he cannot prove his worth by producing at least one parent of good breeding. When everyone converges on Jack’s country home, chaos ensues.
“Who wouldn’t want to be someone else when you’re not home, when you’re out and about and far from home?” asked Huggins. “It’s fun to pretend. Unfortunately, sometimes your worlds collide and you’ve got to come to the realization it’s not going to work. You can’t keep it up forever.”
“I’m Lady Bracknell, and she is Algernon’s aunt and Gwendolen’s mother,” explained Schwalbe. “Oscar Wilde had a very hard time in the Victorian era and lady Bracknell is the epitome of everything he hates about this era. He just put it all in her – the hypocrisy, elitism. But she, herself, came from not a lot of money and married into title, so she really doesn’t have the right to say a lot of the things she’s saying and she sometimes contradicts herself and sometimes lets things slip.”
The story drives the comedy, albeit subtly, something Waters believes audiences will appreciate.
“Almost everyone who is familiar with [this play] really, really loves it,” he said. “I think it’s kind of like Shakespeare, in that you kind of know what to expect. If you’ve never watched Shakespeare you go into it thinking, ‘with all the language it’s not going to make any sense,’ or ‘it’s this old comedy.’ But really when you act it out, when you say it, it blows your mind with how it’s still relatable, it’s still hilarious. And it’s hilarious because it uses all this wittiness. It doesn’t rely on slapstick humor necessarily, it just relies on being clever. It’s really, really interesting in that way. I think people are going to expect to come in not really sure, but they’re going to come in and be like, ‘Oh, I understand this, this is hilarious. I know exactly what’s going on.'”
Like Waters, Gary Gillespie is making his first appearance at Whidbey Playhouse. He said his role as Rev. Canon Frederick Chasuble has allowed him to learn about Britain of that era and also to practice his British accent.
“The accent has been fun, but just the writing is so good,” he said. “The storyline is just so enjoyable. It’s fast moving, you get to know the characters and like the characters and it’s a romantic comedy, so everyone likes that. It’s just a very funny play in every way and why it’s been so popular for 130 years.”
Ben Honeycutt, who plays Jack’s butler Merriman, was part of the selection committee that chose this production for this season.
“The whole goal here was to put on something that’s light-hearted,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s still so topical in so many ways. Wilde was beaten up by the aristocratic society of the day, and so it’s all over the verbiage, it’s all over the action, it’s all over the plot. There’s a line in there, ‘Why are there different rules for women?’ What are we talking about today? Why are there different rules for X, Y and Z? There’s still an amazing amount of stuff he talks about 127 years ago that is topical right now, so that’s cool. It’s not grandstanding and volatile and nasty, it’s ‘see how funny and silly that is?’ So that’s something else that’s nice in this world of sensationalism we’re living in today.”
“It is delightful nonsense,” said Huggins. “It’s fun to watch people being almost a little overly stuffy in a comical way. They’re not intentionally being comical, but it comes across very comical just how they’re teasing each other, how they talk to each other, how they lie to each other.”
Schwalbe said “The Importance of Being Earnest” is a good opportunity for audiences to forget their troubles.
“Just enjoy the story and enjoy the silliness people went through, the trivialities of it all,” she said. “It’s a chance to just kind of go, ‘life is good, life can be joyful.’ I think that’s what we need right now.”
Showtimes are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. through Feb. 27. On demand tickets are also available for those who are not yet ready to venture out for a live performance. Tickets are $18 each and can be purchased online at whidbeyplayhouse.com.
“I know in a lot of cases people look at this show as just a light-hearted, throw away, with a not very serious message, but there’s actually a lot of truth in it,” Sykes said. “A lot of truth and a lot of beauty and a lot of goodness, and that’s what we all need in life.”