Playwright: Oscar Wilde
At: First Folio Shakespeare Festival
The Peabody Estate, 31st Street and Route 83, Oak Brook
Phone: ( 630 ) 986-8067
Runs through Feb. 12
Enter the parlor of the sprawling, ornately gabled Peabody Mansion and you step right into the world of Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff.
Downing cucumber sandwiches while plotting the pursuit of their ladyloves, Jack and Algy, the wry heroes of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, are ensconced in tradition in First Folio's production of the play.
Once the home of a coal baron and now owned by the DuPage County Forest Preserve, Oak Brook's 30-room Peabody estate is in the process of being renovated after years of being occupied only by—so it is said and so I have reason to believe—ghosts.
While staging summer Shakespeare on the grounds of the Peabody estate, First Folio Artistic Director Alison C. Vesely and her husband David Rice have been wrangling with Byzantine rules and regulations of Forest Preserve officials and raising funds for nearly a decade to establish an indoor theater in the parlor of the Tudor Revival-style mansion.
Earnest marks their debut production inside, and it's a corker.
From the antique volumes and sepia photographs adorning the towering wooden bookcases that surround the audience, to the stone cherubs carved into the massive fireplace upstage, the Peabody parlor is a near-perfect setting for Wilde's diabolically clever story of love, lies and social status. Take a seat and you get an Alice-in-Wonderland sense of falling through the rabbit hole right into Wilde's world 19th century England.
The Importance of Being Earnest centers on best chums Jack Worthing ( Christian Gray, overacting too much to be consistently believable ) and Algernon Moncrieff ( Kevin McKillip, a fine, mincing dandy whose smallest gestures can elicit a belly laugh ) .
The pair are enmeshed in the romantic pursuit of Cecily Cardew ( Leah Wagner, sparkling in the role of the ingénue ) and Gwendolyn Fairfax ( Melanie Keller, hilarious and imperious as a bossy know-it-all ) . Alas, both young women—for reasons that are a sly comment on the importance society puts on the silliest, most superficial qualities—are intent on marrying men named Ernest.
Further complicating matters is the heart and uproarious soul of this production, Tony Dobrowolski's Lady Bracknell, Gwendolyn's mother and the grandest gorgon of a woman to grace the stage since, well, I can't remember since when.
Dobrowolski isn't really doing drag here, although he is outfitted in the full-blown regalia of a well-bred Victorian female, from the phallic tower of peacock feathers looming from his velvet hat to the delicate watch chain that hangs like an anchor from his great battleship of a chest. Sure, Dobrowolski's dressed like a woman, but he's so utterly perfect for the part that gender becomes immaterial.
With one eyebrow that can arch a good quarter-inch higher than the other can ( excellent for depicting outraged incredulity ) and a voice that combines the authority of Moses and Mae West, this is a Lady Bracknell for the ages.
Also well worth watching closely is veteran musical theater actor Roger Mueller as a buttoned-up vicar desperately in love with Cecily's tutor Miss Prism ( Jill Shallabarger ) . Listen for the vicar's reference to pagans—it's spoken with the intonation of a man who delights in being secretly naughty. In another subtle, perfect moment, the vicar frantically thumbs through his Bible trying to look up the whys and wherefores of a potential sin like a dithering traffic cop trying to find the particulars on a moving violation.
Renee Mariotti's costumes are elaborate concoctions of velvet, lace and satin, utterly fitting to the upper-class denizens of the time. ( Particularly droll is Jack's mourning garb—right down to the black-edged silken hankie. )
Through it all, Wilde's scathing, brilliant attacks on societal nonsense, hypocrisy, double standards and social caste systems shines.
Vesely stays true to tradition in this Earnest, and the results are splendid.