The Importance of Being Earnest

The Loudest Man on Earth WILDE IDEAS: Lady Bracknell (Courtney Walsh, left) doubts the suitability of Cecily (Jessica Waldman) marrying into her family—till she learns of the girl's fortune.

Arriving to lance the boils of pretension and hypocrisy is Stanford Summer Theater's production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. As part of SST's 15th anniversary festival, Wilde's play is presented alongside the contrasting work of a fellow Irish expatriate, Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, as well as a film series and symposium. With great attention to detail in every facet of the production, as well as the appearance of several distinguished actors, this is not what typically comes to mind when you think of college theater.

Austin Caldwell is a smug yet charmingly rakish Algernon Moncrieff, while David Raymond provides an appropriately more restrained Jack Worthing. In the play, both characters are leading double lives that allow them to skirt their responsibilities, but prove more trouble than they're worth while courting love interests Cecily (Jessica Waldman) and Gwendolen (Ruth Marks). As Gwendolen's overbearing mother, Lady Bracknell, Courtney Walsh affects an amusing, low-pitched turgidity which alludes to the tradition of men performing the role in drag. Don DeMico appears in dual, long-suffering butler roles, while Kay Kostopoulos and Marty Pistone round out the cast as the additional comic figures of governess Miss Prism and the Reverend Chasuble.

While the production comes off as a bit more twee than one might wish for, it nevertheless makes for a delightful evening. With the lush aestheticism of the decorations, the intricate costumes and even an original piece of faux-1890s music created for a brief sequence in which Algernon plays piano offstage, there is enough period-piece charm to placate any confirmed Victoriana fetishist.

At the same time, SST has managed to demonstrate the timeless quality of Oscar Wilde's humor. It has the audience laughing continuously—not the strained laughter that theatergoers will often emit to show how erudite they are, but genuine mirth. That's because after some hundred years in the standard repertoire, in the right hands, Being Earnest is still immensely funny. The repartee between the actors here is a joy to watch, and whether it's Algernon and Jack arguing the pros and cons of Bunburyism or Gwendolen explaining why "Ernest" is the only acceptable name for her future husband, fine comic timing is always on display.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Thru Aug. 11 at the Pigott Theater, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford


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