The Importance of Being Earnest

Something magical happened while I was watching the Artist’s Repertory Theatre’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest. It was not just Oscar Wilde’s word sorcery. It was not just the cast, all local actresses. It was not just the carefully detailed costumes and props and decorated stage. It was a combination of every detail and every moment. Each built on top of each other, like delicately placed layers creating an energetic and vibrant production. It’s the perfect cucumber sandwich. The bread, the spread, the cucumbers. Sure, you could eat them separately and enjoy, but why would you, when you can have them all together?

Earnest, written and first performed in early 1895 in London, is the story of Jack (Jamie Rea) and Algernon (Ayanna Berkshire), two friends who systematically mislead their friends and family to get out of their social obligations. Jack is, to the residents of his country home and his ward Cecily (Crystal Ann Munoz), known as Uncle Jack, a respectable sort who is supposedly plagued by a cad of a brother named Ernest. In his social circles, however, Jack is actually Ernest. The dilemma: Jack’s beloved Gwendolyn (Kailey Rhodes) has long dreamed of marrying a man named Ernest, and Jack has long dreamed of marrying Gwendolyn.

Algernon’s life hangs on a similar lie: when he wants to get away, he tells everyone he has to go see his dear, sick friend Bunbury. Over the course of the play, the men go to great lengths in their efforts to win their ladies’ hearts. Earnest is a comical adventure in identity and earnestness that reveals the masks we wear, why we wear them, and what happens when we take them off in public.

Jamie Rea, who plays Jack Worthing, was first drawn to the Artists Repertory Theatre’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest because it is one of her “top three favorite plays ever written.” Rea described the production as a “collaborative circle,” with the casting employing “generations of women…at least spanning 40 years” and enabling her to “steep in that wisdom and diversity of experience.”

“[There’s this] variety of flavors and colors of women, what it can mean to be female, feminine, and strong,” Rea said. “It provided a juicy artistic opportunity.”

The play works toward “inviting us to be a more complete version of ourselves,” Rea continued. “[That was a] key arc for me, in terms of this play, and happens to be my character’s specific arc. Giving himself permission to be a more complete version of himself. Letting the society he’s in accept him.”

Rea added that, given the current political climate, being a part of something that “highlight[s] women and the strength of women and quite frankly honoring and respecting and employing women, on a super basic level really matters to me.”

In this production, the choice to cast all women heightens Earnest’s identity crisis themes. “One of the points in choosing to do it this way—that exploration is heightened,” Rea said. “The line between the girls and boys is so extreme, because it’s played by all women. We get more of that sense of what it would look like if you could embrace all those pieces of you, and not just what society [sees].”

To be clear, this play is not in direct response to the current political climate. Rather, it chooses to disengage. It changes the context of the argument. It invites the audience to consider what it means to cast all women in a play about men lying to others about who they really are. The intention with the all-female cast was not to “play the masculine,” Rea said. “We are not doing that. We are playing men, there’s no wink wink, we’re not actually lesbians.” It flips the theatrical tradition of men being the only players in the theater. ART communications & community engagement director Nicole Lane added that the character of “Mrs. Bracknell has a history of being played by men in drag.”

Rather than continue to engage in the social discourse that regurgitates the idea that femininity is comical and masculinity is stoic, there is never a moment where characters break the fourth wall to remind the audience that (gasp) they’re women. That choice “doesn’t have to hit you over the head, doesn’t have to be about the protest,” Rea said. “It presents…the same issue [and] frames it in a way that is welcoming and delightful, to remind ourselves not to take ourselves too seriously. [It’s] better for our health if we could give ourselves permission to be all the things we are.”

[below shield]The Importance of Being Earnest runs through June 11 at the Artists Repertory Theatre.