Getting Wilde At Theatre Jax – The Importance of Being Earnest

by DICK KEREKES and LEISLA SANSOM, www.dualcritics.com
Theatre Jacksonville has opened its 90th season with its Classics in San Marco, selecting Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. This comedy will be on stage until October 4th at the Harold K. Smith Playhouse, 2032 San Marco Boulevard. Call 396-4425 for reservations, or visit their website at www.theatrejax.com
If Wendy’s had filet mignon on its dollar menu, the lines would be around the block. Well, Theatre Jacksonville is offering an equivalent bargain to Jacksonville Theatre goers. Yes, tickets for this show are only $10.00, any seat in the house. Even better, the price drops to only $5.00 if you are a season subscriber to TJ. This production of The Importance of Being Earnest is really top quality, a true artistic gem, the best of the best, and equal to any professional performance I have ever seen of this play. The only difference is that the actors are not paid and outside of a small staff, volunteers do all the other jobs involved in the production. Thanks for the gift of tickets at such an affordable low price are due to the River Branch Foundation and its generous underwriting.
It has been several years since this play has been done locally (ABET did it a few years ago), so a bit of the plot is in order to refresh your memory or whet your appetite.
Set in London in the 1800s, Jack Worthing (Michael Lipp) who calls himself Earnest whenever he leaves the dull countryside is visiting London to propose to the lovely Gwendolen (Amy Noel Channing), the daughter of the formidable Lady Bracknell (Harolyn Sharpe). His best friend, Algernon Moncrieff (David Patton) who is Gwendolen’s cousin, also has a make-believe chum named Bunbury to get Algy out of boring situations. Then Algy decides to pose as Earnest in order to secure the affections of Jack’s country ward, Cecily (Stacy Williams). But when everyone ends up together, chaos threatens.
Two notable performances in supporting roles are Sandy Spurney as the governess Miss Prism and Geoffrey King as Rev. Clasuble, who pursue an awkward almost romance with King getting lots of laughs with his drooling admiration of the charming Ms. Spurney.
Brian Currie as Algy’s butler, and Fred Gatlin as Jack’s manservant have their comic moments. Gatlin, in his first role using an English accent, was a delight to watch in the brief time he is on stage.
Mr. Patton and Ms .Williams are making their acting debuts at Theatre Jacksonville. Patton is the Director of Dave and Buster’s Mystery Theatre and also teaches at a local school. Stacy Williams is a Douglas Anderson graduate who has been pursuing a nursing career but is going to be very active on local stages. Both are certainly welcome additions to the local theatre scene.
Award winning actor and director Michael Lipp adds another potentially award winning performance as Jack to his long resume. Amy Noel Canning may not be familiar to you, because she began her local acting career under her single name, Johnson. Having taken on the new role of mother, we are glad she has found time to come back to the stage to portray the delightful Gwendolen.
The role of Lady Bracknell is one of the most coveted female roles in theatre, and Harolyn Sharpe certainly does as well as anyone I have ever seen. She mesmerizes you so that you hang on every word she says, with precise clarity and conviction. She speaks volumes with a slight crinkle of her brow or the pursing of her lips.
And then there are the costumes, designed by the creative and talented Tracy Olin. Even if the show were done in pantomime, it would be a delight because of the visuals. She dresses the women lavishly, in expensive fabrics with laces and ribbons that reflect their social status. Lady Bracknell’s dress in her first scene is of particular interest, because of the leg of mutton sleeves. And while the men’s clothes can’t be quite as colorful, she does bestow a touch of turquoise on the dandy, Algernon. (And wait until you see Jack in full mourning dress.)
The sets (by Kelly Wagoner) and lighting (by Jeff Wagoner) include Algy’s London flat, and the garden and interior of a country home. All are delightful. The Wagoners have chosen a stylized approach, with no Victorian fussiness, and bathed the stage with lighting that reflects and integrates the costuming.
The play is directed by George Ballis who is truly the master of the classics. Those who saw his All of My Sons, Night of the Iguana or A Delicate Balance, some of his most recent directing endeavors, certainly know the loving tender care he bestows on every production from all aspects including the script , the sets and the actors. While at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre, Ballis directed the likes of John Carradine, Don Ameche, Betty Grable and Imogene Coca. Thanks for the memories George, just keep them coming.
Theatre Jacksonville’s impressive program also includes a study guide, so go early so you can read it before the curtain. It will greatly enhance your theatre experience. It also includes a glossary of a few English words, and one that you really need to know ‘perambulator.’ No, I am not going to tell you what it is, you will have to find out for yourself.
This is a funny funny romantic farce, punctuated with social satire, which debuted in 1895 and has remained popular all over the world through all these years. Some critics consider it Wilde’s best play, although I think his Lady Windermere’s Fan is certainly as good. Want to have a Wilde time for only $l0.00? Then don’t miss this play. The acting and accents are excellent and it is truly a delightful evening of theatre.

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april, 2022

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