Wilde at Heart

With college back in session, two local universities tackle classics

Oct 2, 2002 at 4:00 am
Plots are tedious," Oscar Wilde once remarked with great disdain. "Anyone can invent them." Wilde wasn't just anyone, which may help explain why The Importance of Being Earnest has one of the dumbest plots of any classic comedy ever penned. Are we really supposed to buy into this pretense about characters who use one name in town and a different alias in the country and simple-minded ingénues who fall in love with men's names rather than the men themselves? Are we expected to turn a blind eye to the blatant baldness of the contrived coincidence that ties up the play's loose ends?

Well, yes, we are. Because here's a more germane question: Who cares about plot when you can substitute wit? And wit The Importance of Being Earnest has in abundance.

Ever since it premiered in 1895, Wilde's comedy has been hailed as a stylish satire on the frailties of the British nobility. But, as handsomely and imaginatively staged by Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts, this production doesn't give two hoots about the nineteenth-century British upper class. It is focused on a much immediate, accessible and enduring theme: irreverent youth versus insufferable maturity.

Our deceitful protagonist, Jack Worthing (he of the two names, who would marry the beautiful Gwendolyn), is 29. When John Gielgud played the role on Broadway in 1947, and again when Michael Redgrave portrayed Jack in the 1952 film version, both actors were 43. Even Colin Firth, who starred as Jack in this year's bright new movie adaptation, was 42. How welcome, for a change, to see the roles of Jack (Evan Enderle) and his even younger pal Algernon (Joshua Alexander DesRoches) performed by appropriately aged actors. Students may not have as much expertise with period style as Gielgud or Redgrave, but they fill the stage with exuberance and brio.

The stage itself is almost an optical illusion. Although we know the locales are London and a country estate, the soothing aqua hues that brighten scenic designer Margery Burdorf's stage floor would have us imagine we've been transported into the deep end of one of those ornate swimming pools at Hearst Castle in California. (Oscar Wilde in a swimming pool? He probably would have loved it.) Director Tim Ocel has filled out the text with all sorts of deft, even irreverent, touches. In Act 1, Algernon swallows his epigrams along with a mouthful of food. So what if we miss one or two witticisms at the outset? There are dozens more lying in wait. In the script, Jack's innocent ward, Cecily, hands the flirtatious Algernon a rose from the garden; here, actress Amanda Link gives Algie a rose that has been pinned to the breast of her blouse. A small, yet sensual, change.

Amid this nigh-incestuous clutter of aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, brothers, guardians and wards, Miss Prism often stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. But Vanessa J. Cohen brings a perverse charm to the repellent governess that makes her a welcome part of the proceedings rather than the appendage she so often is.

Upon hearing one too many epigrams, Jack moans, "I am sick to death of cleverness." It's a valid point: Too much self-conscious cleverness has been the undoing of many a Wilde evening. Happily and wisely, this current Webster production forsakes cleverness for all-out fun. The result is an Importance of Being Earnest as refreshing as it is unassuming.

To see Beth Henley's 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy/ drama Crimes of the Heart, now onstage at St. Louis University, is to be reminded anew of what a vibrant and resonant play it is, rich in humor yet tinged in a rueful, unresolved melancholy. The story relates the foibles of the three Macgrath sisters of Hazlehurst, Mississippi. Lenny is consumed with her shrunken ovary, and Meg's Hollywood singing career is in the toilet. But they're both sitting pretty compared with Babe, who has just shot her husband, ostensibly because she "didn't like his looks" but really to protect the fifteen-year-old black boy with whom she's having a torrid affair.

Portraying any one of the three Macgrath sisters is akin to diving into a plate of barbecued ribs: Wherever the actress turns, she's going to find something savory to gnaw on. And both Heather Wood's Lenny and Kelly Morris' Meg have their moments, especially in Act 3, as the production spirals into cohesiveness. But it is Magan Wiles as the irrational child/ woman Babe who provides this mounting with its life force. From the moment she is propelled onstage -- legs akimbo, arms askew -- she delivers an endearing, eccentric, dead-on performance that achieves the rare status of oxymoron: Her Babe is delightful, yet utterly sad and profoundly alone. We often hear about actors "owning" roles. Here's the real thing -- signed, sealed and dazzlingly delivered.