DUMMERSTON >> From its first performance on St. Valentine's Day, 1895, Oscar Wilde's play, "The Importance of Being Earnest," has charmed and delighted audiences. The Vermont Theatre Company's current production of the play, on view for three more performances at the Dummerston Grange, upholds this tradition in fine fashion.
In this light-hearted comedy, which pokes serious fun at the social mores of the late-Victorian era, John Worthing, a young man of the upper class, is in love with and hopes to propose to, the beautiful and worldly Miss Gwendolen Fairfax, the cousin of his friend, Algernon Moncrieff. The obstacle standing between John and his desire is the formidable Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen's mother and Algernon's Aunt Augusta. Algernon, in turn, wants to meet John's lovely ward, Miss Cecily Cardew, who lives in the country and is in the care of her governess, Miss Prism. John refuses permission, leaving Algernon to find a way.
Both young men have developed fictitious characters whose alleged escapades provide excuses for them. John has a pretend brother named Earnest, who is always in trouble, and Algernon has an invalid friend named Bunbury, who falls deathly ill at convenient moments and requires Algernon's immediate presence. These ruses allow John to be called Jack in the country and Earnest in London, and Algernon to escape his Aunt Augusta's stifling dinner parties in search of more stimulating amusements. Algernon calls this practice "Bunburying." Inevitably, such deceptions lead to farcical misunderstandings.
The humor of this play depends on timing. The witty repartee of the characters requires the actors to maintain an exquisite balance between uttering each witticism and giving the audience time to comprehend it and laugh, without slowing the pace. The cast, directed by Robert Kramsky, manages this balance beautifully. Another challenge is to have the audience accept that the characters truly believe what they are saying, despite how ridiculous their sentiments sound to us. Again, the cast surmounts this challenge in style.
Lady Bracknell, played by Louise Krieger, embodies the hypocritical standards of her day. Social position represents everything to her; marriage among the upper classes is a business arrangement, and she intends to make the best match she can for her daughter Gwendolen. Her pronouncements are the final word on every subject, whether she knows anything about it or not; "I don't approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance," she says to John Worthing. All the other characters quail before her imperious manner—her sweeping entrances make them anxious, and a collective exhale of relief follows her exits.
Ryan Buck plays John Worthing as a good-hearted young man who takes his duty seriously as guardian to Miss Cardew. Although he wears the blinders of his social class, and he is naïve about love, he is likeable and solid. His faults are mere peccadillos.
Algernon, as played by Samuel Murphy, is a different story. He is a bit of a roué, willing to engage in deception when it suits his purpose. He seems ruled by his impulses: He consumes all the cucumber sandwiches meant for his Aunt Augusta and all the muffins at Jack's country house, to say nothing of falling in love with Cecily at first glance. Yet, beneath his apparent cynicism, he is a young man searching for direction.
Jillian Morgan makes Gwendolen Fairfax a pampered princess eager to get out from under her mother's thumb. She considers herself quite a catch and happily accepts a marriage proposal from "Earnest Worthing."
Cecily Cardew, as played by Cassandra Dunn, is an innocent, naïve girl who keeps a diary in which she writes the events of her life as she imagines them, including a marriage proposal from her guardian's brother, whom she has never met. One of the most amusing scenes in the production takes place when Gwendolen arrives from London, looking for her "fiancé." Cecily invites her to tea. Their conversation begins civilly enough, but as their mutual misunderstanding grows, they begin to hiss at each other, calling each other "Missss Cardew" and "Missss Fairfax."
The absent-minded Miss Prism, Cecily's diligent governess, is ably played by Louise Zak. Michael Jerald gives the Rev. Canon Chasuble a gently bumbling quality that is very endearing.
Christopher Rose as Algernon's butler Lane and Michael Kauffman as John's butler Merriman maintain proper reserve, even in the face of their employers' shenanigans.
The sets effectively establish a context for the action of the play. The costumes are appropriate to the time period, especially those of Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen, which are visually extravagant. Keep an eye on Gwendolen's parasol.
If you've never seen this play, this production is a delightful introduction. Go. If you know this play, this production is like visiting a dear friend whose company you enjoy. Go.
Performances are at the Dummerston Grange, 1008 East-West Road, Dummerston, tonight, Friday, and Saturday, all at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 for general admission on Friday and Saturday, and $12 for all senior citizens, students, and general admission on the Thursday and Sunday performances. For reservations, call 802-258-1344, or visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nancy A. Olson can be reached at email@example.com.