One of the most frequently performed plays in the English language is Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. And that's a good thing, because it's virtually impossible to overdose on Wilde's fabulously bitchy dialogue, with its razor-wire putdowns that figuratively lop off heads.
This play of mistaken identities amid England's idle aristocracy is so perfectly structured that it can withstand even the most leaden performances. But when it's in the hands of professionals, such as those at the Great Lakes Theater Festival, this century-old script leaps to life with astonishing vigor. While not perfect in all respects, this Earnest, now being performed in repertory with Julius Caesar, is a hilarious must-see for anyone who hasn't taken a recent walk on the Wilde side.
In a powerful cast, Aled Davies as über-mother Lady Bracknell is worth the price of admission. By extruding his deep voice through the pursed observations of this imposing maternal presence, Davies's Lady B is the Queen Mary plowing through a smattering of rowboats whenever he's onstage. And his interrogation scene with Jack is perfection, as the Lady tries to determine whether the young man is worthy of daughter Gwendolen's hand in marriage. (She: Are your parents living? He: I have lost both my parents. She, with frosty disdain: To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.)
This play hinges on the bachelors, Algernon and Jack, who are in pursuit of two lovely young women who are insistent on marrying a man -- any man -- named Ernest. Algernon, a man of voracious appetites, is played with splendid ease and casual good humor by David Anthony Smith. As Jack, Douglas Frederick is a bit too stiff and not quite ditzy enough to bring out all the fun of his character. But he loosens up in the third act and handles the collision of borrowed identities with affecting aplomb.
Although Laura Perrotta as Gwendolen doesn't look as if she shares even one random chromosome with Mom, she mixes cool refinement and simmering passion into a heady concoction. When asked delicately if she could ever love a man named Jack, her response is withering; she wields the word "Jack" like an ax, felling the young man's hopes. Kelly Sullivan is equally adept as Cecily, the teenage heartthrob, one moment impulsively adolescent and the next elegantly refined. The first meeting of these two women quickly turns into claws-out hostility, as they assume they're engaged to the same man. In smaller roles, Lynn Robert Berg is amusing as a couple of butlers, and Wayne S. Turney makes a cuddly Dr. Chasuble. As dim Miss Prism, Nan Wray is half a bubble off, skating past a couple beats as she reveals the Big Surprise near the play's conclusion.
Director Charles Fee has staged a memorable Earnest, giving his actors room to invent while keeping the whip-smart language the star of the show. All in all, it's a Wilde evening.