I’ve never had as much fun and found so much delight in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest as I had experiencing director Conall Morrison’s version produced by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. And I’ve seen it many times before.
Morrison originally created this for Dublin, Ireland’s Abbey Theatre where actor Alan Stanford has performed the same role he interprets here. Adding to the special nature of the offering, the remarkable set also has been brought across the Atlantic.
It works so well because Morrison has found ways to make the Pittsburgh cast get the most out of its comic possibilities, full of constant vitality and broad playing rather than the more usual English restraint most people expect. Morrison has also inserted a multitude of hilarious bits of business and reactions. And it sounds as if Morrison found ways to get his actors to overcome the sonic limitations of the Charity Randall Theatre, an accomplishment in itself.
As you may have heard, this production has an all-male cast. Yet this does not camp it up nor do anything to point up that you are watching men in those roles. This is no send-up. The men in those roles make the women truly funny women.
Visiting actors Will Reynolds and Matthew Cleaver portray the two young ladies Gwendolen, with whom Jack is totally smitten, and Cecily with whom Algernon is wildly, passionately, devotedly in love. Reynolds’ Gwendolen gets just right the mirror image of her mother, Lady Bracknell, even up to towering over the men in unassailable stature and command. And Cleaver’s take on Cecily has all the dopey innocence you could wish for. Both men create marvelous portraits.
Astonishingly memorable David Whalen plays Jack gloriously full throttle, romping through every moment, playing it all to a fare thee well. As Algernon, Leo Marks brings out a lot of the smart aleck side, more restrained than Whalen but a good contrast.
In a smaller role, Martin Giles’ take on the servant Merriman serves up its own laughs.
Mr. Stanford has the inevitably plum role of Lady Bracknell which he never pushes or overdoes. He makes the zingy lines zing, his timing and inflections perfect.
Stanford also appears as Oscar Wilde in what, as you may have heard, is director Morrison’s own material to frame the whole thing in which Wilde is seen in the final downward days of his life, when his memory seems to call forth the play. Although Stanford’s performance as Wilde has sad verisimilitude, that part of this production doesn’t work. It even gets egregious when we see Wilde heading upstairs with a bare-chested young man. The add-on seems superfluous and even diminishes the effect of Earnest’s jolly conclusion when we once again see lonely, solitary, abandoned Wilde in a bar. I imagine Morrison wants to show a contrast between the broad hilarity of the play and the sad reality of Wilde’s last days. Program notes make that completely clear for anyone who doesn’t know the facts already.
Nonetheless, this element does not take away from the rest of this otherwise thoroughly entertaining, fresh approach. Seeing what can be done with what is considered a classic makes it even clearer that Wilde did indeed create a joyful treasure.
The Importance of Being Earnest continues through August 27th a The Charity Randall Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland. Tickets at ProArtsTickets: 412/ 394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org