The Walnut Street Theatre is doing The Importance of Being Earnest in high style. The Victorian era was noted for its excesses in decoration and costume, and Robert Koharchik’s set design for this Victorian-era comedy gets every detail right, right down to a wall filled with miniature paintings. And Mark Mariani’s costumes indulge in wild combinations of colors and patterns without ever seeming garish.
Everything is so nice to look at it, in fact, that it may be easy to miss what lies beneath. Under all the frills and flowers, it’s still Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy as it’s been since its 1895 premiere: a well-constructed romp full of utterly charming characters doing utterly ridiculous things. One misunderstanding follows another – “Now produce your explanation and pray make it improbable,” says a key character at a particularly absurd moment – as mistaken identities stack atop each other. Just when you think that all the antics might get tiresome, Wilde drops in another of his timeless witticisms, and all is right with the world.
That’s especially true when Mary Martello is onstage as Lady Bracknell, perhaps Wilde’s most delicious comic creation. Martello makes for a finely imposing and imperious matron, one who does not suffer fools gladly – and in her mind, everybody else is a fool. Watching her peer through her pince-nez to clinically examine every inch of her daughter’s suitor is a particularly droll moment.
The four young lovers whose machinations form the play’s plot are delightful too. Daniel Fredrick’s impish energy as Algernon is a nice contrast to Jake Blouch’s lingering slow burn as Jack. Alanna J. Smith’s flighty, sunny Cecily is an easy target for Lauren Sowa’s steely and self-satisfied Gwendolen. All four play off each other well, with Sowa and Blouch especially good in the way they stretch out their encounters for maximum comic effect. There’s also fine support from Ellie Mooney as a quirky governess and Peter Schmitz as a befuddled clergyman.
Under Bob Carlton’s direction, what could be a stuffy curiosity is a lively frolic. The lines snap with energy, and the cast takes the material lightly without mocking it.
The Walnut’s Earnest is, in the best tradition of English farces, a grand time.
Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, with an intermission.