The human condition was fair game to Oscar Wilde, and in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Wilde’s masterpiece and his last play, he serves up a delightful dish of satirical wit — silly but sublime.
Beautifully directed by Victor Pappas, Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of “Ernest” is an undisputed delight. Pappas theatrically delineates every nuance, every gesture, every character with jewel-like precision.
“Ernest” is set in 1895, when late Victorian society thrived on unspoken rules and regulations. But hypocrisy flourished: prim and proper in public; naughty and ribald in private.
The action begins in the London drawing room of the dapper Algernon Moncrieff, dashingly portrayed by Quinn Franzen. He is joined by his gentrified friend, who calls himself Ernest Worthing, flawlessly played by Connor Tom.
Wilde’s plot is hilariously convoluted, bouncing between town and country. Both gentlemen have a secret: Algernon has created an imaginary invalid friend, Bunbury, to escape his aunt’s matchmaking; Jack has invented a fictitious brother named Ernest to explain his forays into town.
Jack loves Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen, a saucy Emily Grogan, and she loves him, but not unless his name is Ernest. He proposes; she accepts.
Enter Lady Bracknell (Kimberly King), a virago reeking of pretensions and pomposity. Her inquisition of Jack turns his proposal into rubble when Jack/Ernest confesses he was a foundling, discovered in a handbag in Victoria Station.
But wait: Jack has a second secret, an impressionable ward named Cecily Cardew, a charming Hana Lass, living on his country estate. Fascinated with the tales of her “Uncle” Jack’s wicked brother, Cecily is also in love with the name “Ernest.”
Unknown to Jack, Algernon nips down to the country and pretends to be Ernest to woo Cecily. He proposes; she accepts.
Now both ladies are engaged to the nonexistent Ernest. Riotous complications ensue.
Most would agree that the definitive portrayal of Lady Bracknell belongs to Dame Edith Evans, both onstage and in the 1952 film. In this production, however, King gives an understated turn as the imperious woman.
Wilde fans eagerly await the infamous line, “A handbag!” but King almost throws it away. She is a budding gorgon but not yet a full-blown one. Lady Bracknell should command the stage, not share it. She should chew up the scenery; King only nibbles. Hopefully, she will gain more thunder in subsequent performances.
Instead of casting the usual rotund actress as Miss Prism, Kate Wisniewski is a slim version of the eccentric governess. That doesn’t matter, but what does matter is that her performance seems less dotty and flirtatious, as she trades sly innuendos with the Rev. Chasuble. Plus, it’s a stretch to believe she would mistake a manuscript for a baby.
As an ensemble, the talented actors have a Wilde time, especially the marvelous Charles Leggett, who all but steals his onstage scenes. He is hilarious as the jovial and doting Chasuble. Decked out in a loosely fitted, white suit, Leggett slouches his shoulders and moves with a mincing gait, holding his straw hat with repressed desire, as he worships Miss Prism with metaphoric adoration.
And Michael Patten gleefully delivers his share of laughs, doubling as the snooty town butler Lane and his less-cultured country counterpart, Merriman.
The production elements come together perfectly. Carey Wong’s charming classic period sets are a real treat, enhanced by Kent Cubbage’s superb lighting and Melanie Burgess’ costumes.
Best of all, you can hear every syllable of every word the actors speak and they do so with impeccable comedic timing. Wilde’s banter is rife with witty one-liners, including a ridiculous exchange about muffins. And when was the last time you heard the phrase “shilly-shallying”? Or the word “forte” pronounced correctly?
On opening night, the audience also had a “Wilde” time. They cheered their approval but stopped themselves short of a standing ovation — they shouldn’t have.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” runs through April 13 at the Center House (305 Harrison St.). For information, call (206) 733-8222 or visit www.seattleshakespeare.org.
STARLA SMITH is a longtime Queen Anne resident. To comment on this review, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.