25 July 2003: Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Old Deerfield Productions.

Nowhere on the program is this group identified. The name turns up in the bios. It may be in newspaper advertisements as well. In any case, they are associated with Old Deerfield and performed in a non-proscenium theatre on the grounds of Deerfield Academy. The play is directed by Linda McInerney, longtime organizer of this very pleasant series of plays.

Linda McInerney has done better directing than this, and the cast was notably uneven. The two Equity actors, John Reese as Lady Bracknell and Stephanie Carlson were quite good. The main men, Jack and Algy, played by Michael Fleck and Tristan Chirico, were certainly well contrasted and created credible characters. Rosemary Caine as Miss Prism played a slightly demure version of Rosemary Caine. And Kip Fonsh was atrociously bad as Chasuble — as if he had strayed unaccountably off of the set of a Neil Simon New York comedy and had a nearly ungovernable letch for the governess.

This is shoestring theatre, and it’s unfair to criticize severely. At the same time, this company is capable of some fairly high flights, as in the case of the wonderful, harrowing production two years ago (I believe) of The Cure at Troy, a nearly unbelievable achievement for a group of this modest caliber. In the current instance, what we ended up with was a standard somewhere between mediocre and competent. Setting aside the seeming fact that McInerney was just unable to rein in the gushing, impetuous Kip Fonsh, it remains true that the play achieved a brisk pace and maintained it throughout. (I saw the next-to-last performance; it had been running on long weekends for three or four weeks.) But the nasality of Michael Fleck as Jack was excessive and irritating; does he always talk like that, or is that part of his idea of an English accent? And Fleck’s rapid-fire pace of dialogue, though in principle well intended and in practice successful, resulted in too many nearly inaudible throw-away endings of lines. His body language was approximately right, however, whereas the Algernon’s (Tristan Chirico) was too loose and casual. In a play in which a character — Lady Bracknell — can admon­ish­ingly point out that style depends upon the way the chin is worn and “it is worn very high just at present,” it behooves the director to pay attention to such things.

Stephanie Carlson and John Reese did pay attention to such things, and Carlson was “quite perfect” as Gwendolen, playing a fine, sensual, even erotic inner life inside the rigorously correct exterior mercilessly imposed on beautiful young women by fond and doting mothers and by society at large. She hit the spirit of the play and the style of it exactly and was a pleasure to watch whenever she was on stage. John Reese, a tall, big-boned man with a good deep baritone voice, was well up to the challenge of transforming himself into the formidable profile of a grande dame, complete with several pounds of rice in each aspect of a well-padded bosom (a fact made much of in local newspaper publicity). Reese said he spent much time in local supermarkets observing how women walk and otherwise move. That doesn’t seem to be the best preparation, somehow — the thought of watching Lady Bracknell move suavely through the produce section of Stop and Shop doesn’t fill one with unmixed admiration; but then where else would one be likely to be able to see a lot of women moving about with some purpose in mind? In any case, Reese did a rather good job, but his concept of the character didn’t achieve as much of the ruthless portrait of a profoundly philistine social climber that Wilde gives us. The extent of the inadvertent self-revelatory, self-betraying quality of the character was not fully on show. It is tempting to play Lady Bracknell as in some sense lovable, and Reese gave in, spoiling, to some extent at least, the point of Jack’s despairing fear, in his question to Algy, “Do you suppose Gwendolen will become like her mother in about a hundred and fifty years, Algy?” Reese’s very imposing physical presence at least made the question credible.

Oh, the Cecily. Pretty long in the tooth, I’d say. One senses McInerney did not have wide resources to draw on this time around. It was all too clear, when Gwendolen spoke frankly and said she could have wished Cecily was “fully forty-three and more than usually plain for her age,” that this Cecily was exactly that! Moe McElligott, the Cecily, cannot help being fully forty-three and having a miniature Olympic ski jump for a nose, but physically — and temperamentally — she was not right for Cecily. She might’ve done something like justice to Miss Prism. It is unfair to be saying that; McElligott is a talented actress with a fine sense of comic timing and an excellent soubrette voice (if with a little more timbre than usual in that line of business). But she came across like a comic chanteuse in vaudeville, and it didn’t help that her costume, generally gauche, was topped by a ghastly hat, a cross between a French chef’s hat and a soufflé, with a large black band at the base. Who could have done such a thing to poor, wounded Cecily?

Ah, well. They got a good many line readings right, including the one that separates the literate productions from the illiterate ones: the “pink rose” line in Act II. If you know that a Maréchal Niel is a rose too — but a yellow tea rose — it makes sense for Algy to say, “no, I’d rather have a pink rose” — not a “pink rose,” as was said in the generally much better production of this play last summer by New Century Theatre.

It’s unclear why Old Deerfield Productions ventured on a second mounting of this play so soon after the last one here in the Valley. And it’s a pity that they were not able to command enough resources to do any better with costumes than they did. I suspect someone saw some photographs of the famous “Black and White” Earnest back in the 1920s, but that achieved the pinnacle of high style, and this … did not. What was really odd was that the butler Lane and the footman Merriman wore entirely black, not only coats and trousers but shirts, waistcoats, and ties, which made them look like refugees from a Jesuit seminary. Very odd. Jack’s mourning suit, however, was fairly good, the white pilgrim hat with the wide black band being particularly effective. I wish I could say as much for his entrance, which, as William Archer explained in his review of the moment in the first production (1895), must be done very slowly, to let the wonderful wit of Jack’s having actually “killed” his younger brother Ernest dawn on the audience only gradually, letting the laughter kindle from row to row.

Alas, I know too much about this play and its history to be a representative critic of it in modern production. The audience Friday night just loved it, and loved John Reese especially well. And that, finally, is what really counts.



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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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