A Dandy Time

[This review of The Importance of Being Earnest was supposed to have run in the September 12 issue of The Inlander, but it was omitted at the last minute due to space constraints.]

The JACC in Post Falls, ID has branched out to include live in-house theater. Its inaugural production was a fleeting delight.

Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest has been mined for the writer’s bons mots as often as it’s been performed as a dramatic work: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” “Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.” “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.”

With such delicious quips in every other line of dialogue and the height of action being a sudden shortfall of cucumber sandwiches, it’s not hard to see why the Jacklin Arts & Cultural Center chose Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people” for its inaugural production. The venue acknowledges that it isn’t equipped with a fly system or even a proper backstage area like most theaters, and therefore the plays it chooses have to suit its facilities. Earnest shows that the JACC can turn this weakness into a strength.

The play centers on two foppish friends, Algernon (Colton Sullivan) and Jack (Cole Durbin). To better woo Gwendolen (Bethany Hart), Jack pretends to have the more respectable name Earnest when he visits her in the city. By purporting that Earnest is also his hapless brother, it also gives him a convenient excuse to flee the tedium of the rural social scene. Algy reveals that he does something similar in reverse, using an imaginary and hopelessly ill country relative called Bunbury.

Inspired by his friend’s revelation, crafty Algy heads to the country under the guise of Earnest to court Jack’s young ward, Cecily (Loretta Underwood). His romantic scheme is complicated when Jack arrives with the invented news of Earnest’s death. And Jack finds himself caught in his own web of deceit when Gwendolen and her mother Lady Bracknelll (Christopher Lamb) visit the country, too, looking for the Jack they only know as Earnest. Although its mixed/mistaken identity plot is a familiar one, Wilde’s play does manage to squirrel in a few (patently absurd) surprise twists for first-time viewers.

Directed by Eric Paine, the JACC Theater Troupe actors were in strong form on the final evening, with most affecting passable British upper-class accents and showing a solid sense of their characters. A highlight was Lamb in drag as the infamously snobbish Lady Bracknell. The barely elevated stage of the JACC, itself a cozy converted church, made for a perfect drawing room setting.

The biggest downside of Earnest is the brevity of the run — just three evenings and one matinee. The JACC clearly wanted to test the water with this production, but its four sellout shows are proof that the appetite in the region for classic, nonmusical drama exceeds the current menu.

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