If you live in Santa Barbara County and have never been to the open-air Solvang Festival Theater, you’re missing out on one of the area’s most charming venues, and this charm is nowhere more fitting than in the world of Oscar Wilde.

PCPA’s production of Wilde’s classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest captures the playwright’s incomparable wit and presents the complex social etiquette of late-19th-century English aristocracy through the filter of Wilde’s incisive sarcasm and affectionate disdain for the polite society that surrounded him. The play manages to be a charmingly self-deprecating send-up of charm itself.

Vanessa Ballam as Gwendolyn (left) and Eleise Moore as Cecily Cardew (right).
Luis escobar, Reflections Photography Studio

It may be that Americans are easily enchanted by traditional British propriety-the butler’s fastidious flicks of the tablecloth were enough to set this audience atwitter-but like all the best comedians, Wilde is truly funny not because he’s cute, or even irreverent, but because he’s right: about the ways we try to look good for one another, about the ways we mistreat one another, and about our deepest desire, which is to be loved. Despite its sarcasm, Earnest is really a romantic comedy where love prevails, and greed and foibles are forgiven.

In the role of Mr. John Worthing (who goes by Ernest in town, Jack in the country, so as to shirk responsibility for his urban escapades), J. Todd Adams finds a balance between likeability and exasperating selfishness. As played by Lenny Banovez, Jack’s friend and partner-in-deceit Mr. Algernon Moncrieff is shockingly self-absorbed and at the same time, sweetly innocent. Among the highlights of this production are Lucinda Hitchcock Cone, who brings wry bemusement to the impossibly crotchety character of Lady Bracknell, and Eleise Moore in the role of Miss Cecily Cardew: Jack’s charge, Algernon’s love interest, and a girl learning quickly to think for herself, but still play her cards carefully.

In his own life, Wilde was less willing to contort himself to play by the rules; society was not kind in the face of his flamboyance, brilliance, and passion. Despite the tragedy of his life, few artists before or since have matched Wilde’s ability to express the comedy of the human condition. More than 100 years after it was written and half a world away, Earnest still delights.


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