“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde is subtitled “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People” – an apt statement of the play’s intention. First performed on Feb. 14, 1895 at St. James’ Theatre in London, it is a comedic farce in which the main characters take on fictitious names and whole personalities in order to escape tiresome social obligations.

One character, Algernon, invents an imaginary person named Bunbury as an alibi to escape from relatives. He explains to his friend, “I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose. Bunbury is perfectly invaluable. If it wasn’t for Bunbury’s extraordinary bad health, for instance, I wouldn’t be able to dine with you at Willis’s to-night.” As might be imagined, this fiction and others often find the perpetrators in hot water.

The story itself doesn’t turn on mistaken identity exactly; rather, two young women are courted by two young men, who may or may not be who they say they are. Both of these silly girls find it very important to marry a man named “Ernest” for reasons undetermined. Social conventions and the rigid British class system are commented upon with obvious merriment. The funny script, filled with the witty lines Wilde was famous for, will keep the audience amused.

It was well reviewed in London, but some critics said that it didn’t address social issues seriously. Indeed, it did not, nor did Wilde intend that it should. He was well aware of the hypocrisies of Victorian England and believed that satire and comedy addressed them well.

Although the play had a successful opening night, it was a mixed bag for Wilde and the beginning of his downfall. The Marquess of Queensberry, father of Lord Alfred Douglas, an intimate friend of Wilde, was determined to discredit him. Wilde avoided the marquess that night, but about a month later Wilde was arrested for gross indecency, homosexuality being a serious criminal offense in England at the time. Wilde’s double life was revealed to the Victorian public, causing the show to close prematurely, and he was eventually sentenced to imprisonment.

Why has Coaster Theatre chosen to present this play? Darren Hull, a Coaster Theatre actor and chairman of the program committee, has this to say: “Every year the program committee looks at several plays and considers them for their appropriateness for our audience, for our ability to cast them from our pool of players, and for the complexity of set design. We strive to balance the season by providing something funny, a musical or two, a mystery, an edgy drama – a little something for every taste. We chose this play because it is a classic for the stage with good name recognition and great audience appeal. It is frequently performed by non-professionals, and our actors are more than equal to the task.”

Darren was certainly right about all of the above. Dmitri Swain has conceived of a set that is an elegant drawing room in the first act, a garden in the second act and finally, a different drawing room at the end. Gold shutters provide the background, with colorful fabric on the tables, period furniture, a silver tea service, floral bouquets and table arrangements – and, of course, cucumber sandwiches. The set and props portray Edwardian England among the upper classses.

The director of the show, Patrick Lathrop, who is also Coaster Theatre’s new executive director, has moved the time frame of the play forward slightly but significantly. Instead of 1895, when it was originally produced, he moved it forward to 1910, after Queen Victoria’s death and at the beginning of the Edwardian period. This enabled him to take advantage of the fashions of the new period, which were less conservative than the severe bustles of the Victorians. Cecily and Gwendolyn are both costumed in Edwardian lines, Lady Bracknell in 1880s attire, and Miss Prism is dressed very conservatively, reflecting the 1830s.

Watching a rehearsal two full weeks before the show opens, it was interesting to see the actors and the director working together to make the necessary changes that keep the movement on stage look so effortless. It is a study in choreography. The excellent cast, from Astoria, Cannon Beach, Seaside and Manzanita, manages to stay in character as uptown Brits and do it with English accents – no small feat, as anyone who has tried it knows.

The play will be part of the Summer Duet, opening Friday, July 12 and closing Sept. 1. The other play in repertory this summer is the comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which is filled with music by Stephen Sondheim and features a fine cast. It will take you back to Ancient Rome and the farces of Plautus.

The two plays together are sure to be a smashing success at the Coaster Theatre.



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