In The Importance of Being Earnest — easily the greatest English stage comedy ever written by anyone other than Shakespeare — Oscar Wilde created a half dozen of the most memorable characters in stage history. This is not altered in the least by the fact that Jack, Algy, Lady Bracknell, and the rest are nothing like any real people who could have ever possibly existed. Indeed, if anything, the enormous distance between Earnest and real life adds to the fun. It’s the frosting on this perennially delicious piece of tea cake, and it is a pleasure to report that, in Miller James’s excellent new production of the play at Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre, absolutely no compromises have been made with reality. While the two young men around whom the action revolves are enmeshed in the waning of the aristocracy under Queen Victoria, they remain as aloof and seemingly unaware as only a pair of complete kooks can.
The casting is just one of the things that make this Earnest work so well. Allan Stewart-Oaten gets the show’s opening laughs in the first of his dual roles as Lane and Merriman, the butlers at the respective gentlemen’s homes. As Algernon Moncrieff, the feisty playboy who instigates most of the shenanigans, Joshua Danyel flashes a brilliant smile as he cuts a superficial figure. Remember, though, in this context superficial is good! As his friend and rival in frivolousness Jack Worthing, Richard Lonsbury makes an effective physical counterpoint, and by the time early in the first act when the two of them get to squabbling and then struggling over a certain silver cigarette case, the show has found its comic footing for good.
Jennifer Marco pairs well with Lonsbury as the Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax, Algy’s cousin and Jack’s fiancée. Her smoldering sensuality and proud willfulness give the show an edge that is often lost when a less accomplished cast takes it on. Katherine Bottoms makes a splendid Cecily Cardew in Act II, getting some of the night’s biggest laughs with her expert timing and sweetly malicious grin. Susie and David Couch have never been better cast than as the hapless governess Miss Prism and her amiable paramour, the Canon Chasuble. They are funny, genuine, and fully capable of handling all the many double entendres that Wilde dishes out.
Anyone who knows anything about The Importance of Being Earnest will feel by now that his or her patience is being tried. Let the suspense end — Jenna Scanlon is a terrific Lady Bracknell. This linchpin role tends to be the aspect by which any serious Earnest is judged, and, on that account, this one is a winner. From her first droll entrance to the play’s endlessly satisfying finale, Scanlon as Bracknell controls the stage. Those fussy pursed lips, that fire-breathing tone of voice, and, most of all, the courage of her majestically mercenary and hypocritical convictions are what have made Lady Bracknell a heroine for the ages, and Scanlon gets all of that into her portrayal and more.
Strong performances such as these indicate the presence of a director with vision, and in the case of Miller James, who also designed the brilliant costumes, that vision goes way beyond how the actors say their lines. I won’t spoil it for you by saying what the entr’acte that covers the scene change in Act II is, but I will promise that you’ll be surprised and delighted by yet another of the myriad dividends in this comedic gem from Circle Bar B.