Oscar Wilde: From the Depths, Charles McMahon’s new play about the darkest period in Wilde’s life, is a play that’s brimming with intelligence and insight, and it’s beautifully performed and sometimes quite affecting – but like Wilde’s life, it feels unfinished.
The new play by McMahon, Lantern Theater Company’s Artistic Director, covers the tumult that began in 1895 when Wilde, then one of England’s most celebrated men of letters, found himself, through a disastrous series of missteps, on trial for “gross indecency” – a polite Victorian term for homosexuality. Convicted after three trials, and sentenced to two years of hard labor, his spirit and his body were broken; he died a few years later at age 46. Oscar Wilde: From the Depths opens with Wilde in prison, wondering where it all went wrong, and through a series of flashbacks we find out how Wilde got there.
Wilde’s story remains a fascinating and tragic one, and Oscar Wilde: From the Depths gives a thorough accounting of it. But the play runs more than two and a half hours, and far too much time is devoted to repetitive scenes and themes.
In the opening moments Wilde stands alone and listens to the words of the judge sentencing him; but at the end of Act One the scene is repeated without any changes. Wilde pauses several times to ask himself why he didn’t flee the country to avoid prosecution, when we only need to hear him say it once.
There are flashback-within-flashback scenes in Act Two where we go back in time to observe Wilde’s first meetings with characters we had already gotten to know well in Act One. There are also time-wasting digressions, such as Wilde’s testimony being interrupted so he can have a conversation with Dorian Gray, his most famous fictional creation. Fanciful moments like this add little to the play, and they do little to reduce the sense of unredeemable gloom that dominates large stretches of the play.
That’s too bad, because there’s much to admire in McMahon’s play, especially in the way it portrays the tumultuous affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas which ultimately led to Wilde’s downfall. Bosie is portrayed as vain, effete, and oblivious: at one point he visits Wilde in prison and tells him “I am the one who’s really suffering.” But McMahon wisely doesn’t assign all of the blame to Bosie, or to his homophobic father; instead, by quoting large chunks of Wilde’s testimony, he shows how Wilde engineered his own ruination.
The three actors in Oscar Wilde: From the Depths show off a staggering amount of versatility. Marc LeVasseur plays Wilde, and not only does he look the part – with his tousled hair, solemn visage and lean build – but he embodies Wilde’s attitudes, from the arrogance that brought him low to the anguish that he suffered in prison.
David Bardeen and Jered McLenigan play all the other roles, sometimes switching between characters in a split second. Bardeen is a compassionate defense attorney; the jovial American artist James McNeill Whistler; and Bosie’s belligerent father the Marquess of Queensbury. McLenigan is a lisping professor; a guttural Cockney reporter; and most unforgettably, the petulant and indignant Bosie. (Leonard Kelly was the Dialect Coach.) The actors all project confidence under M. Craig Getting’s direction.
Lance Kniskern’s prison set design is all bars and concrete, with multiple levels that allow for different imagined settings. Shon Causer’s lighting is responsible for conjuring up many of those settings, from a courtroom to the Riviera. And Millie Hiibel’s costumes, while mostly in shades of brown and tan, show a few flashes of the vibrant hues that Wilde and Bosie were known for.
McMahon’s play about Oscar Wilde is mostly admirable, though at times it can be disappointingly wordy and self-indulgent. Then again, you could say the same thing about Oscar Wilde himself.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including an intermission.
Oscar Wilde: From the Depths plays through February 14, 2016 at the Lantern Theater Company, performing at St. Stephen’s Theater – 10th & Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 829-0395, or purchase them online.