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Leading a hypocritical double life? The Nov. 15-24 OdysseyStage production of The Importance of Being Earnest will make you squirm. Irish dramatist, novelist, and poet and world-famous wit Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) thoroughly skewers hypocrites of all stripes and ages with this magnificent 1895 comedy that gleefully rattles all the skeletons in the Victorian closet.
Wilde's widely acknowledged comic masterpiece, directed for OdysseyStage by Lisa Hirsh, included countless satiric epigrams. Among them:
"I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy."
"I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train."
"I suppose society is wonderfully delightful. To be in it is merely a bore. But to be out of it simply a tragedy."
"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."
Lisa Hirsh remembers, "I first saw The Importance of Being Earnest as a high school student at a local university's production of it in the 1970s. This is the first time I have worked on a production of Earnest, but I have read it many times in the intervening years.
"For me," she adds, "it is a witty, wise, and beautifully simple way to make a comment on the veracity, or lack there of, in 'modern' society. The intervening years since first experiencing The Importance of Being Earnest have convinced me that this play contains an accurate depiction of the sublime notion that Truth, like Beauty, is in the eye of the beholder."
The dramatis personae of The Importance of Being Earnest include a number of Victorian eccentrics. "Jack Worthing (Will Cross)," Hirsh says, "has invented a younger brother, Ernest, who can do the things in town that the very responsible 'elder' Mr. Worthing feels he has a moral duty not to do. His friend, Algernon Moncrieff (Christopher Bynum), uses the pretense of visiting his invalid — and imaginary — friend Mr. Bunbury to get away to the country whenever he likes.
"At the start of the play," Hirsh explains, "Mr. Worthing — then known as Ernest — has come to town for the purpose of proposing to Algernon's cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Kimberly Hirsh). Algernon discovers the ruse and Jack shares the story of his adoption. Jack determines to do away with his brother only to find that Miss Fairfax is not only enamored of him, but especially of his name — Ernest — and what that name signifies about one's character.
"Algernon takes advantage of the situation and, posing as Ernest, contrives to meet Cecily Cardew (Almeera Jiwa), Jack's young and beautiful ward. He immediately falls in love, but finds that Cecily, having engaged herself to Ernest without ever meeting him, also is attracted to the name."
Hirsh says, "Both men are earnest in their affections, but neither is Ernest in name, so separately [they] contact the local Rector, Dr. Chasuble (John Paul Middlesworth), to be christened, or re-christened, under the name of Ernest.
"Gwendolen decides to visit Mr. Worthing in the country and, upon meeting Cecily, discovers they are both engaged to Ernest. However, much to their chagrin, they soon learn there is no Ernest at all. Shortly after, Lady Bracknell (Sheila Outhwaite), Gwendolen's mother, arrives to reclaim her daughter and Dr. Chasuble appears to perform the now unneeded christenings."
Subsequent plot twists and turns involve Cecily's governess, Miss Prism (Sandra Shelton); a manservant named Lane (John Paul Middlesworth); and a butler named Merriman (Nick Winstead) and his footman (Dani Nowell/Seton Mazzocchi).
Ultimately, Lisa Hirsh claims, "[T]he past is cleared, the truth is found, and all discover the vital importance of being earnest."
Staging a full-scale production of The Importance of Being Earnest presents quite a challenge to OdysseyStage producer Sheryle Criswell and director Lisa Hirsh and their creative team, which includes set designers Lisa Hirsh and Megan Mazzocchi, costume designer Donna Cavallo, lighting and sound designer Larry Evans, and props person Paula Scotland.
Hirsh says, "The 'set' … consists of furniture, set dressing, and props. Because the stage in the Seymour Theatre at the Chapel Hill Senior Center is tiny, barely more than a dais, we have expanded our set in a thrust pattern on the floor. This allows for two playing areas and gives the audience a taste of theatre in the round.
"In the London flat of Algernon Moncrieff (Act I)," Hirsh points out, "leather furniture and comfort are seen. Wicker furniture and a garden lattice are featured in the garden of John Worthing's Country Estate (Act II). Inside John Worthing's Country Estate, the drawing room features a bay window and some feminine touches."
She adds, "The lighting is subtle and has few changes during each act. Colors used include pinks, peaches, and lavenders. The costumes evoke a sense of the early 1920s and are geared toward reflecting each character's personality and position....
"Oscar Wilde wrote that The Importance of Being Earnest is to be set in 'Time: The Present,'" Hirsh says. "While the message of the play is as needed today as it was in the late 1800s, times have changed and the world has moved on. It is for this reason that I have set the play in 1923. [There are several reasons for] this decision, including the post-World War I need to live and love, the fascination of the English with Americans and American music during this period, and the further effects World War II would have in dismantling the class divisions seen in the play. Only after having determined that 1923 was the latest year I felt the words easily fit into did I discover that the last time the play was done in contemporary clothing was in 1923 — an odd but interesting coincidence."
Hirsh adds, "One unusual thing you might notice about this production is that the characters are not struggling to affect an English accent. I love an English accent and recognize that this is an English play, but it is the words themselves that are most important here. I have seen performances in which the actors are so focused on the correct accent that the timing and intent of the text is lost. Therefore, I have asked the actors to concentrate on clear diction and expressing the meaning of the words through their characters.
"Wilde may have considered The Importance of Being Earnest a 'Trivial Comedy for Serious People,'" Hirsh declares, "but learning the intricate nuances and rediscovering the beauty of the play has convinced me that it is definitely not trivial and those of us who are less-than-serious may learn the most from it."
OdysseyStage presents The Importance of Being Earnest Friday, Nov. 15 and 22, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 16 and 23, at 3 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 17 and 24, at 3 p.m. at the Robert E. Seymour Theatre in The Chapel Hill Senior Center, 400 S. Elliott Rd., Chapel Hill, NC. $12 ($10 students, seniors, and active military), except Nov. 17 Pay-What-You-Can matinee. 919/490-1828. http://www.odysseystagetheatre.org/.