Raleigh Little Theatre’s (RLT) current mainstage production is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde’s no-holds-barred comedy attacks the style-over-substance way of nineteenth-century London society as Wilde saw it, leaving wide gaffes in societal mores while plunging headlong into whatever situation was necessary in order to obtain what one desires, in this case love and marriage. Wilde’s characters seem to subscribe to the morals of the day, when in point of fact they are not in the least bit interested in morals, but merely in what they see as their due. Two young dandies set about to secure for themselves the hands of a pair of fair maids, but how they go about it, and the obstacles they face, make for high comedy and a romp through the laws and by-laws required of societal wooing.
Algernon Moncrieff (Gus Allen) and his friend John Worthing (Brook North) are, at curtain up, preparing to take tea with Lady Bracknell (Rebecca Johnston) and her daughter, the Honorable Gwendolyn Fairfax (Kate Bowra). Worthing is smitten with Gwendolyn and is determined to propose to her this very afternoon. For the lady’s part, all is well, but Mama is having none of it. The entirety of Act I, in Algernon’s rooms in London, Worthing woos Gwen while attempting to deflect Mother’s jabs; while Gwen and John feel they are betrothed, Lady Bracknell has other ideas. When the ladies leave at the end of Act I, the lads are a bit put off by the very stolid objections of Lady B.
Act II moves from Algernon’s digs in London to John’s place in the country, the Manor House in Woolton. There, taking her lessons from the ubiquitous nanny, is John’s ward, Miss Cecily Cardew (Sheryl Scott). Miss Prism (Diane Monson), the governess, attempts to teach Cecily, but the young ward is much too caught up in spring. She is far more interested in writing in her diary than any schoolwork and her texts are left untouched as she tends her flowers. Into this idyllic scene wanders Algernon, who is down on a lark to meet this young lady that Worthing seems to keep hidden from him. In high comedic fashion he is immediately struck, and when he proposes to the young ward, he is delighted to learn that she is all for his proposal. Here we learn the importance of Ernest. Ernest is John’s fictional younger brother, a persona that John uses when he is in the city. It is under the name Ernest that John has proposed to Gwen. Now, in an attempt to worm his way into the household, Algernon has assumed the role of young Ernest, John’s brother, and it is under this guise that he has wooed Cecily. Gwen and Cecily meet for the first time and much is made of the fact that both of them are now engaged to Ernest. Only when John himself arrives is everything sorted out, and when the ladies learn there is NO Ernest, there is no engagement.
Act III takes place in the drawing room of the Manor, again presided over by Lady Bracknell. Much is revealed, including the fact that John and Algernon are actually brothers, and by the end of Act III, all is well that ends well. The very different mores that are batted back and forth by Lady Bracknell and her charges are couched in high language, and the humor that is Wilde is brought out by the high society language of the day.
The difficulty we run into with this production is part physical and part mental. The physical difficulty comes from the way the set is designed. Both Acts I and III are set in very narrow locales. There is no upstage in these acts because they take place in front of the garden scene of Act II, which makes for very cramped quarters. We lose any aspect of three dimensions; we are met with only two dimensions. This makes for a very static and very non-fluid staging. There is no depth, either on the set or in the characters. This causes us to lose interest in this two-dimensional setting with its two-dimensional characters. And the cleverness with which Wilde presents his critique of society is sadly two-dimensional as well.
The work that is presented with The Importance of Being Earnest is supposed to be high comedy, with a heavy dose of high society thrown in and a touch of ridicule for good measure. But the static nature of the sets, along with a static presentation of characters that also lack depth, make for a shallow performance. There is comedy and wit aplenty in RLT’s production, but a lackluster third dimension makes for a stolid performance that falls flat.
The Importance of Being Earnest continues through April 28. For more information on this production, please view the sidebar.