by Clark Groome
To close its inaugural season at Mt. Airy’s Sedgwick Theater, the Quintessence Theatre Group has chosen Oscar Wilde’s magnificent “The Importance of Being Earnest.” While director Alexander Burns’ production is inconsistent, the play’s glories nonetheless shine through.
The classic comedy about mistaken and misrepresented identity, love, class wars and family is so wise and witty, so incisive that even a flawed production can’t mask the play’s inherent beauty and brilliance.
In the Quintessence production, Josh Carpenter plays Algernon Moncrieff, the London resident who creates the fictional Bunbury so he can escape to the country whenever life in the big city bores him. His performance on opening night was still settling in. In the early going he was far too anxious to prove he could be a British aristocrat who could speak with a proper British accent. The result was a somewhat forced turn that slowly, over the play’s three acts, settled down, allowing him to become Wilde’s marvelous character.
His pal Worthing — Jack at his country house, Earnest in London — is in Jake Blouch’s capable, if not convincingly English, hands. Unlike Carpenter’s Algernon, Blouch seems comfortable with his character from the beginning.
Part of the difficulty for both of these actors comes from director Burns’ decision to set the play, written in 1895, in the 1960s. I’m not sure why he did that, but it really doesn’t matter; this play works because Wilde’s words are timeless. What matters is that Carpenter initially seems caught in the 19th century’s last decade while Blouch is more in tune with the production’s time period and acting style.
Janel Miley’s Gwendolen Fairfax, Worthing’s beloved, and Emily Rast, Algernon’s object d’amour Cecily Cardew (who happens to be Worthing’s ward), are both quite good. Their commitment to having a husband named Earnest, their initial confusion about who’s who and their palpable pleasure when all is romantically resolved are delightful.
Lesser roles are taken by Sean Close as Cecily’s butler, Marie Maginity as the essential Miss Prism, and Paul Hebron as both Algernon’s butler, Lane, and the Reverend Chasuble.
Close is really little more than set decoration. Maginity’s Prism has an almost incomprehensible accent and is, alas, rather wooden throughout, never letting her affection for Chasuble or her horror at having left a baby in a handbag at Victoria Station (The Brighton Line) 28 years before be anything more than transparent actor’s choices, and not very good ones at that. Her performance can best be described as acting by the numbers.
And then there is Janis Dardaris’ Lady Bracknell. In recent memory this magnificent role has been limned by the likes of Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith and, currently on Broadway, the magnificent Brian Bedford. Dardaris, one of the area’s best actresses, is just terrific as Gwendolen’s imperious mother and Algernon’s slightly daffy aunt. Her presence in this young company’s cast is both a blessing and a bit of a curse. I sense that all the other actors, like tennis players whose opponents are significantly better, are trying to be as good as Janis is. That’s the good news.
The less positive news is that’s not going to happen, at least any time soon, with the results that the other performances pale in comparison.
That said, the Quintessence production, simply but effectively designed by Eliza Brown (sets), David Sexton (lighting) and Jane Casanave (costumes), still honors “The Importance of Being Earnest” and shows just why it’s still one of the English language’s greatest comedies.
This is a very nice, and encouraging, way for this young company to end its first full season at the Sedgwick.
For tickets to the Quintessence Theatre Group’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which plays through May 22 at the Sedgwick Theater in Mt. Airy, call 877-238-5596 or visit quintessencetheatre.org