Theater Review: Tennessee Rep Delivers an Impeccable ‘Earnest’

earnest-5A character in an Oscar Wilde short story remarked he was “so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.” The beauty of Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s current production of The Importance of Being Earnest is that they understand precisely what they’re saying so we reap the humorous benefit.

Wilde’s classic comedy of manners has been a hit with theater audiences since its 1895 London premiere. The splendid satire on society still works because no matter the place or era there will always be people whose public façade is at odds with their private behavior.

earnest-3That doesn’t mean every production of Earnest gets the rhythm of Wilde’s play right: I’ve seen productions where actors ran through his words as if they needed to be somewhere else ASAP, and others where they thought being droll meant slowing their delivery to a snail’s pace. Happily director René D. Copeland and her cast give us a well-timed and thoughtfully delivered tour de force that produces plenty of well-earned laughter.

If you haven’t seen this play (or read it in high school or college) just know that it centers on two young men of fashion, Algernon Moncrieff (Jacob York) and Jack Worthing (Eric D. Pasto-Crosby), who utilize such devices as a fictitious friend and an alias to escape the strict rules of polite society. They have love interests named Gwendolyn (Emily Landham) and Cecily (Marin Miller), but both must deal with the imperious Lady Bracknell (Rona Carter) in order to find happiness with their chosen companions. It would all be so melodramatic if not for the exquisite wit Wilde employed to make us laugh at their foibles while recognizing more than a bit of our own thoughts and behaviors in the play’s delicious banter.

earnest-6The entire cast – which also includes Bobby Wyckoff doubling as servants Lane and Merriman, Denice Hicks as Cecily’s governess Miss Prism and Brian Webb Russell as the Rev. Canon Chasuble – are in command of moment and mirth throughout. Each has impeccable timing, and their actions and reactions are precisely what one would think they should be for each character. Carter and Landham are particularly impressive in their attacks; it’s not hard to fall into the trap of overdoing their characters’ pomposity such that Bracknell and Gwendolyn become boorish, but both actors avoid that trap with deliveries that breathe fresh life into characters I’ve seen at least 30 times on stage or screen over the years.

Miller’s characterization of Cecily winningly reminds me of the I’m-slightly-ditsy-but-not-stupid portrayal Miranda Richardson gave as Queen Elizabeth in the “Black Adder” TV series; York and Pasto-Crosby work marvelously in tandem and alone; Wyckoff’s transition between sour Lane and sweet Merriman is clear and in both instances quite amusing; and Hicks and Russell, whose penchant for good acting is as reliable as a Swiss time-piece, are delightful in two roles that are more vital to the success of an Earnest production than they may initially appear.

earnest-4David Wilkerson provides dialect coaching to this production and deserves praise for it. American actors doing British accents often fall into one of two distracting categories: they try too hard or they try too little. Wilkerson’s work pays off with accents that seem natural to those employing them.

Gary C. Hoff’s rotating set – which gives us two drawing rooms and a garden – is another marvel from one of America’s finest scenic designers (a fact his colleagues in the theater world have acknowledged for some time and one for which we Nashville theatergoers should be very grateful). Add Trish Clark’s vibrant Victorian costumes as well as the impeccable light and sound designs of Phillip Franck and as usual Tennessee Rep bows to no one where the technical elements are concerned.

earnest-1To borrow from another Wilde play, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” We get a look at those stars through the quality of plays like The Importance of Being Earnest and productions like the one Tennessee Rep now has in Johnson Theater – lucky us.

Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest directed by Rene Copeland continues through Nov. 2. Performances are at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. Oct. 19 and 26 as well as Nov. 2 at Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Johnson Theater (505 Deaderick St.). For tickets (Starting at $45; starting at $11.50 for students with valid ID, some restrictions apply) call (615) 782-4040 or visit www.tennesseerep.org.

earnest-7*Photos by Shane Burkeen courtesy Tennessee Repertory Theatre.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).