The Importance of Comparative Theater

Left to right: Lizzie O'Hara, David Lind, Josh Marx, and Ruth Pferdehirt revive Wilde's masterwork The Importance of Being Earnest.

Left to right: Lizzie O’Hara, David Lind, Josh Marx, and Ruth Pferdehirt revive Wilde’s masterwork The Importance of Being Earnest.

In Oscar Wilde’s cheerfully cantering masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest, protagonist Jack Worthing indulges in a hectic double existence, leaving behind the burden of a gentleman’s duties — commanding a grand estate, bringing up a young relative, presiding over court — to dabble in the freer life of a lettered rake. Worthing invents a ne’er-do-well sibling, the fictional eponymous Earnest, whose scrapes necessitate his older brother’s frequent sojourns away from home, and on whom our main character pins all his own mischief.

The plot thickens with the introduction of dandy Algernon Moncrieff, Worthing’s partner in obfuscation, and with ladies Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax and Worthing’s young charge Cecily Cardew, plus the usual cast of side characters that populate a rousing farce such as Wilde’s pinnacle work.

Worthing’s peccadilloes are meant to express the oppressiveness of Victorian mores, or rather, the need to escape them. And since everything old turns gold again, it’s hard not to relate it  all to our present milieu. Anyone (as in almost everyone) who uses social media is guilty of the double-life thing, presenting one face to friends — and, let’s face it, virtual strangers — while real-life woes burble behind the scene.

Later in life, while imprisoned for libel stemming from an accusation of then-shocking homosexuality, Wilde turned suddenly sober. In his letter De Profundis (“From the  Depths”), addressed to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, the playwright said: “To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul … the only people I would care to be with now are artists and people who have suffered: those who know what beauty is, and those who know what sorrow is: nobody else interests me.”

Good stuff. However, when Flat Rock Playhouse stages The Importance of Being Earnest this month, they focus on the sparkling wit of the original play, an ideal choice for midsummer. Earnest is an enduring comedy that “audiences never seem to tire of,” a Los Angeles Times reviewer once noted. (The play premiered on Valentine’s Day 1895 at St. James Theatre in London and has been produced thousands of times on stage, nine times in film and TV adaptations, and most recently in a Broadway revival in 2011.) According to a press statement from the Playhouse, “The Importance of Being Earnest is sure to make you laugh, sigh, and swoon.”

The Importance of Being Earnest continues through July 24: Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, matinees Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $28. Call 828-693-0731, 866-732-8008, or buy online at flatrockplayhouse.org.

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