By Dale King
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest has been modified and repackaged in many different ways since it first hit the London stage on Valentine’s Day 1895.
Lake Worth Playhouse has made its own modifications to the three-act production, pulling it into the 21st century, relocating it from England to Palm Beach County and toying with some of the gender roles.
As a result, the downtown Lake Worth Beach venue presents Wilde’s tale of two loving couples with obvious gay overtones. And while the show sticks mainly to the original script, the resulting emphasis is embellished with an LGBTQ+ sensibility.
Director Daimien Matherson, owner of Measure for Measure Theatre, directs this show that was dubbed a “trivial comedy for serious people” 126 years ago, due in large part to its dismissive treatment of Victorian social mores and flighty societal rites.
The LWP edition also tingles with idiosyncrasies of the collective but ends up skewering the modern-day habits of some Palm Beachers and their neighbors rather than the puffery of Victorian England.
However, both versions of the play offer protagonists who maintain fictitious personae to escape burdensome social obligations. This oddity makes the action a bit more difficult to follow. Thankfully, the show comes with a program.
Under Matherson’s direction, the cast of eight handles this multi-plot program with certainty and confidence, although some of the opening scenes are a shade bizarre. The changes of location, era and sexual proclivities render the overall package a bit tough to follow. The obtrusiveness finally settles down as the play continues, but it never really fades away.
The fact that Lake Worth’s production supposedly takes place in and around Palm Beach County makes the gallery feel a bit more at home. At least one major character resides in a Palm Beach mansion — and the audience hears a reference to “dining at Howley’s,” the well-known West Palm Beach restaurant.
Several other farcical quips, double-entendres and the single reference to a local woman as a “Karen” — a very new term of derogation — can also be heard if one listens carefully to the dialogue.
Love fuels the dual plots of this Wilde adaptation. Algernon Moncreiff (Ricky Morisseau) is a flamboyant male described as “a pansexual hedonist” who is desperately in love with Cecily Cardew (Rowan Pelfrey), a pretty young woman whose uncertain tie to the moneyed class becomes a confusing annoyance for one of the main characters.
Algernon’s flamboyant, effeminate behavior in Act I seems to be an odd run-up to his romantic entanglements later in the show. Eventually, though, he is clearly in Cecily’s camp.
At the same time, Jon “Jac” Worthing (Victoria Bloyer), a lesbian of uncertain heritage, arrives on the scene. She claims to have been abandoned as a baby in a large handbag at a local railway station. Uncomfortable in aristocratic society, she lives in the country and has invented a fictional evil brother named “Earnest” whose constant “naughtiness” requires Jac to exit social encounters to attend to her fake sibling’s misbehavior.
Coincidentally, Algernon uses a similar device, having concocted a fake person named “Bunbury,” a fictional invalid whom he uses as a ready excuse whenever he wishes to get out of any social commitment. It becomes such a common reference that other players talk of “Bunburying” as if it were part of the language.
The object of Jac’s affection is Gwendolyn Fairfax (Fiona Coffey), daughter of Lady Bracknell (Nicole Hulett), the production’s main antagonist. She’s confident in her ability to halt both budding romances to suit her own advantage. After all, she dislikes Cecily as a mate for her nephew Algernon, and holds Gwendolyn in contempt until she can prove she is financially able.
As if remaining true to Wilde’s original intention, Lady B’s love-busting efforts are foiled in the long run because of her overabundance of societal correctness.
Even with its many changes, LWP’s effort is a worthy evening of entertainment. The adept cast is blessed with some beautiful scenery, thanks to show carpenters Joseph Eberspacher, David Drain, Christine Schloemer, Ardean Landhuis, Norma O’Hep, Chip Latimer, Lilly Florencio and Flavio Milicchio.
Morisseau’s flamboyance in the opening act is a worthy juxtaposition to Bloyer’s social nonchalance. The actors show both extremes of the gay gender scale while most other performers remain in balance.
Rounding out the cast are Adam Carter, in convincing dual roles as butler and manservant; Althea Wilson as Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess and Patrick Price, a rector and frequent visitor at Jac’s home, who seems to relish time spent with Miss Prism.
The Importance of Being Earnest is playing through Nov. 28 at the Lake Worth Playhouse, 713 Lake Ave., Lake Worth Beach. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 561-586-6410 or visiting www.lakeworthplayhouse.org.