French doors and Japanese tapestries add fresh flair to a familiar English comedy: Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Director John Going and a nimble cast capture the energy and wit of Wilde's masterpiece without getting tripped up by its deceptively difficult language. Presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, this Earnest is a glass of Champagne, a bubbly celebration of style and humor wrapped in a surprising purple bow.
Scenic designer James Wolk, costume designer Elizabeth Covey and lighting designer Dennis Parichy contribute mightily to the success of the production. Act One takes place in the London apartment of bachelor Algernon Moncrieff. The room is 1895 chic, with sunlight streaming through the windows and Japanese imagery on the walls. The apartment's décor matches everything from the flowing robe worn by Algernon -- who is played with puckish innocence by Erik Steele -- to the startling purple-from-top-hat-to-shoes ensemble worn by his friend John Worthing (a dashing Jeffries Thaiss). These set and costume choices reveal the comic intent of director Going: The characters live in a storybook London, where realistic human foibles are exposed by exceedingly clever people who never encounter true life. In this Wilde-land, it's completely believable that all the characters we meet in the first act (including the butler) would be wearing complementary shades of purple.
Romantic entanglement number one begins when John, known as "Ernest" to his London friends, proposes to Gwendolen Fairfax, the daughter of high-society grande dame Lady Bracknell. Often Lady Bracknell is overplayed as a kind of Queen Victoria on steroids. Instead of making Bracknell an exceedingly unpleasant ogre, though, here Jill Tanner invests her with believable strength. Her control of the situation (and her daughter) seem logical. As a chip off the Bracknell block, Gwendolen is played with feisty assurance by Brandy Zarle.
Act Two takes us to John's country manor, which looks like a pop-up children's book, with a garden set complete with flowers and a fish pond in front of a flat painted background. The costumes here are earth tones and floral patterns, enhancing the fairy-tale feel of the production. Here we meet John's ward, the effervescent Cecily Cardew, played with captivating sincerity by Ashley West. Romantic entanglement number two occurs when Algernon, pretending to be John's black-sheep brother, Ernest, woos a willing Cecily. Comic misunderstandings happily multiply as Gwendolen joins the country crew, and a third romantic possibility brews as Cecily's governess, Miss Prism, and the Reverend Chasuble (Darcy Pulliam and Max Robinson) try to hide their smoldering attraction for one another.
Parichy lights the outdoor scenes with cheerful sunshine and subtly shifts the focus from one couple to the next. The verbiage gets a bit heavy in this act, when Chasuble goes on about his sermons and when Cecily and Gwendolen aren't quite as sharp as they should be in their argument scene. But a basket of muffins saves the comic day, as Algernon and John argue over sweets and women and who should rightfully be christened as "Ernest."
Going stages Act Three as almost a dance, with couples circling, coming together and being thrown apart by the arrival of Lady Bracknell. The comic timing is impeccable. As the play nears its inevitable happy ending, Gwendolen speaks about the importance of style. Happily, everyone involved with this production is painting from the same stylistic palette. The attention to detail in the props, the precise use of teacups and teacakes to punctuate comic business, and the smooth movements and adept handling of Wilde's witty one-liners come together in seemingly effortless fashion. We know we're on solid comic ground when Thomas Carson, as Algernon's manservant, Lane, opens the show with subtle comedy in a role that could easily be overlooked. Carson returns as servant Merriman in Acts Two and Three, drawing applause for his physical humor. The solid cast of eight, under the scrupulous direction of Going and supplemented by outstanding design work, deliver a joyful Earnest.