Wilde at Heart

Don't sell melodrama short: Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance still grabs an audience by the throat

A Woman of No Importance

Fontbonne College Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown at Big Bend

Call 314-725-9108.

One of the intriguing dividends of theater in the round is that in addition to watching the play, you can observe the audience. The audience reaction to the opening-night performance of the ACT Inc. production of Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance was revealing indeed.

Before the play began, a sense of expectation hovered over the packed house. Viewers knew they were about to see an infrequently produced comedy by one of the wittiest dramatists of all time. And indeed, in the early going, Wilde's celebrated epigrams ("moderation is a fatal thing; nothing succeeds like excess") elicited their expected laughs.

But after several minutes, that laughter began to ebb. Many of the epigrams were no longer topical or even relevant. As they continued to be hurled like baseballs in a batting cage, restlessness overtook the audience. Then, quite abruptly, the maxims subsided and the melodramatic plot kicked in. Once it took hold, it never let go. What's the moral here? Don't sell melodrama short. When well acted, it is still capable of grabbing an audience by the throat.

A Woman of No Importance concerns Lord Illingworth, a rising British politician who has chosen the wholesome young Gerald Arbuthnot to be his private secretary. But when the boy's mother learns of the prestigious appointment, she does all in her power to stop it. Why? That's the mystery at the core of the evening. Sandwiched between bons mots and one-liners, the plot is thick with secrets and revelations, guilt and forgiveness. On the surface, Wilde's melodrama may be a comedy of manners, but its title character, Mrs. Arbuthnot, does not share in the laughter, for she has endured a life of shame, suffering and sorrow.

Watching Liz Hopefl's beautifully calibrated performance as Mrs. Arbuthnot, I was reminded of the occasion when an actress asked Dame Judith Anderson how to use a fan in a period comedy. "It's not the fan," Dame Judith replied. "It's the eyes." Here, as several other actresses busily flutter their fans in a futile attempt at period style, Hopefl doesn't bother to strive for period -- she strives for truth. Her weary, haunted eyes are just one element of this compassionate performance. Although the actress does not even appear in the evening's first third, the moment she arrives onstage, she turns the play inside out. Forget about the blithe, lazy goings-on that precede her entrance; Hopefl brings a sense of dramatic urgency to the proceedings.

As Lord Illingworth, Ray Shea is saddled with the dilemma of choosing how to deliver Wilde's epigrams. Do you toss them off lightly, as if you don't know how funny they're supposed to be? Or do you go for the jokes? Shea takes his cue from Lord Illingworth's line "A man who can dominate a London dinner table can dominate the world." This lord knows precisely how witty he is; thus Shea tends to attack each line head-on, as if he's Mark McGwire swinging for an out-of-the-park home run. I fear he's made the right choice with the wrong material: Sadly, Lord Illingworth is no longer the wiseacre Wilde intended him to be.

But then, a rueful sadness hangs over the entire evening. When, early in Act 1, a bored grande dame complains, "Danger has become so rare in modern life," then proceeds to savor the advantages "of playing with fire," the lines burn with irony, for we have the hindsight of knowing what came next. Three years after this comedy's successful premiere in 1892, Wilde himself brazenly played with fire when he sued his lover's father for slander, well knowing that the father's accusations about the playwright's homosexuality were true. The trial exploded in plaintiff Wilde's face. His dazzling career came to a sudden halt when, to his disbelief, he was sentenced to two years in prison for sodomy. Three years after his release from Reading Gaol, England's most flamboyant literary light died in disgrace at age 46.

There's little need to consider Wilde's wasted life while watching The Importance of Being Earnest, his most enduring, and most frequently produced, comedy. Earnest, after all, is sheer escapism. But A Woman of No Importance provides an insightful glimpse into the scandal and hypocrisy that were the underbelly of Oscar Wilde's existence and which surely he never intended to expose onstage. One hundred and ten years later -- with special thanks for Liz Hopefl's memorable performance -- this rarely seen comedy/melodrama still provides a resonant and rewarding evening of theater.

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