On Theater: 'Earnest' retains its comic importance

Oscar Wilde was among the wittiest playwrights of his generation and, even if that period was the late 19th century, his words still carry an appreciable bite.

Take, for instance, "The Importance of Being Earnest," Wilde's final play and one that still is revived locally about as frequently as any of Neil Simon's scripts. Currently, it's occupying the Mainstage Theater at Golden West College in a physically handsome and philosophically tweaking production.

Wilde wrote of upper-class London society, tossing zingers of dialogue around like grenades. His notorious "out" lifestyle contrasted greatly with that of his more closeted libertarians.

A century later, "Earnest" is considered among the wittiest plays ever written, described by the playwright as "a trivial comedy for serious people."

Director Martie Ramm has delivered a strikingly appealing interpretation that vies for playgoers' attentions with the three imposing scenic backdrops designed by Bret Engle and the elegant period costumes of Susan Thomas Babb. This may be an oldie but, in most respects, it's still a goodie.

The heavy lifting, for most of the first act, is performed by Devon Suraco and Tony Graham, playing a pair of genteel fellows, each in love with a young lady whose fate may be determined by the other. Once the scene shifts to a manor in the countryside, things begin to warm up considerably.

Suraco succeeds at projecting a blase attitude, speaking with the playwright's ironic voice on social manners and mores. Graham is the more impressionable of the pair, smitten with a young lady of considerable charm and bearing who just happens to be the cousin of Suraco's character.

This would be Merci Hase's statuesque Gwendolen, a liberated lady who's nevertheless still ruled by her domineering mother. Her ally on the field of romance, Suzanne Panos' lovely but rather vacant Cecily, appears later and snares Suraco's attention.

At the core of this bilaterally symmetrical comedy is the formidable Lady Bracknell, a potentially scene-stealing character that doesn't quite register in the performance of Gina Treasure. The actress comes off as uneven and tentative in a role which requires unquestioned command.

Igniting the paper-thin plot in the second act are Angele Lathrop as Cecily's guardian, the prim Miss Prism, and Gavin Hall, seething with self-importance in the role of Reverend Chasuble. Charlie Magdaleno and Will Hart complete the picture as ramrod-stiff manservants.

Attractive lighting designs of Sigrid Hammer Wolf and a pleasant sound design by Dave Mickey complete the atmospheric picture.

There's a sound reason why local theater groups continue to resurrect "Earnest" in their season's schedules. It's on view as a treat for both the eye and the ear at Golden West College.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Independent.

If You Go

What: "The Importance of Being Earnest"

Where: GWC Mainstage Theater, Golden West College, 15744 Golden West St., Huntington Beach.

Where: Closing performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Cost: $10 to $12

Call: (714) 895-8150; or go to http://www.gwctheater.com/map.html

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