The Importance of Being Earnest

Raleigh Little Theatre
Through April 28

It is not easy to upstage the words of Oscar Wilde, though Vicki Olson’s costumes for Raleigh Little Theatre’s production of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest come close. From start to finish, the sartorial choices for the play’s pretentious characters are every bit as outrageous as they are, from canary yellow and pink lemonade-colored dresses to the multilayered monstrosities worn by Rebecca Johnston as the formidable Lady Bracknell.

The overall production isn’t as entertaining as the costumes, though it’s difficult to fail with a script as strong as this one. Director John T. “Jack” Hall tends to err on the side of exaggerated body language and delivery, which at times undermines the dry wit of Wilde’s sensibility, while providing unexpected laughs at other times, such as the ridiculously slow-moving butler Merriman (Tony Hefner, who also portrays the cucumber sandwich-snatching butler Lane).

In Wilde’s text, Merriman has little more to do than make announcements and react to the silliness of the more wealthy characters he serves; here, the production gets big laughs by having the butler be slow and enfeebled, so it takes him several moments to get up and down stairs to deliver the constantly changing news. It’s a clever sight gag that gets funnier as the play goes on, and Hefner is deft enough to make both Lane and Merriman into distinct characters.

The play’s classic comedy of overly refined manners, aristocratic hypocrisy and assumed identities maintains its absurdist punch, with the best performances coming from Johnston as Lady Bracknell and Kate Bowra as Gwendolyn, who gives her character just enough of a faux-intellectual edge to make her determination to marry a man named Ernest a believable quirk. As the moneyed gentlemen Algernon and Jack, whose devious doings set the play’s misunderstandings into motion, Gus Allen and Brook North are at times a little too broad, though they do an admirable job of selling their characters’ pretentious-yet-mischievous natures.

Though written more than a century ago, The Importance of Being Earnest remains funnier and more topical than most modern comedies. This is in part because the wit and insight of Wilde’s material is grounded in human foibles, which help make even a character as outrageous as Lady Bracknell relatable. The more outrageous take on Earnest at RLT undermines some of this insight, but the best lines still get laughs from the audience, and some of the more over-the-top elements, such as the costumes and the slapstick, actually add to the comedy. Though it’s a shame there are no cucumber sandwiches available for the audience at the concession stand. Lady Bracknell would never have that.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Gimme shelter.”