There's a reason why "The Importance of Being Earnest" continues to be performed more than a century since its debut in 1895: It's a funny show with a calvacade of one-liners and social commentary that still feels fresh, sassy, a little naughty and extraordinarily relevant.
The production of Oscar Wilde's enduring play, subtitled "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People," is the first show staged in the CenterPoint Legacy Theatre's black box theater -- the Connie Leighman Performance Hall. The 100-seat theater is tucked away in the southwest corner of the Davis Center for the Performing Arts in Centerville.
If CenterPoint's debut show in the space is any indication, there are great productions to come.
The play was directed by Bountiful resident Jansen Davis, executive director of the Davis Performing Arts Association. Davis has directed the show once before and has also acted in a production. His familiarity and appreciation of the script was apparent as the movement on the stage felt at last Tuesday night's production was airy, light and natural. Davis let Wilde's clever words and lively banter lead the action and didn't overdirect the show.
The play is double-cast, and Tuesday's standouts were most earnestly the two leads, Jon Rash as Jack/John Worthing (aka Ernest) and Justin Lee as Algernon "Algy" Moncrieff (aka the other Ernest). The satirical story follows two young British gents who use the same fictitious name to play the field -- so to speak -- Victorian-style.
The two actors worked well off each other, with Lee's carefree interpretation of his character nicely complementing Rash's uptight, charming approach. Lee had just the right boyish charm as he delivered a series of witty and scathing observations on appearances, youth, love, fashion, friendship and familial obligations. It was hard not to like this impish character who says the most outrageous things.
"The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to someone else, if she is plain," Lee says as Algy, with a twinkle in his eye.
Throughout the show, Rash delightfully matched Lee's lighthearted spirit with a perfectly raised eyebrow, a shocked look of consternation or mock outrage.
In the story, the object of the boys' affections are Gwendolen Fairfax, played in this cast by Megan Smyth, and Cecily Cardew, played by Allyson Sanders. Smyth was properly prim and proper -- but flirty -- in her role. Sanders exuded just the right amount of naivete, innocence (and a little bit of scary teenage angst) for her character, who has concocted a rather rich fantasy life in her diary.
The two were particularly fun to watch as they tried to behave like proper young ladies while taking tea, all the while loathing and shooting daggers at one another because of their imagined rivalry over Ernest -- a name they insisted produces "vibrations."
Supporting cast members also delivered admirable performances, including Alison Jensen as the meddling Lady Bracknell, Joseph Nichols as the harried servant, Ken Hadlock as the stuffy Dr. Chasuble and Kristi Colaizza as the repressed Miss Prism. I always marvel at cast members -- and their memorization skills -- when they can keep the dialogue snappy and flowing naturally.
With only a few minor exceptions, Tuesday's cast did just that. They kept Wilde's smart zingers coming at a rapid-fire pace at the giggling audience.
The black-box space was also ideal for the intimacy of this show, with a set that was simple but conveyed the elegance of the time period. The set morphed smartly from Algernon's flat in London to John's country manor house, complete with a drawing room and garden.
The costumes by Sandy Hunsaker were playful but elegant, particularly in the second half with Gwendolen's shimmering gold and teal dress and John Worthing's dashing "mourning suit," complete with an enviable top hat. But again, the costumes didn't overpower or detract from Wilde's remarkable script.
I've always been fascinated by Wilde's other famous, but darker, work, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," about a beautiful youth who is hiding a rather nasty secret in his attic. I was not as familiar with "The Importance of Being Earnest" and have gained a greater appreciation of Wilde's genius thanks to this production. And in the end, there's a rather enchanting picture instead of a scary portrait.
For me, one of the best measures of a good show is whether or not it makes me want to explore the source material further and check out other versions. I'm already on the hunt for the various movie adaptations and will be checking out the Wilde side in the book aisles.