A class act: ‘Earnest’ at the Heartland

The Kansas City Star

Terrific comic performances, creative direction and a handsome physical production make “The Importance of Being Earnest” one of the best shows I’ve seen at the American Heartland Theatre in 20-plus years of reviewing theater.

The witty, silly 1895 comedy by Oscar Wilde is a delight in the right hands, and director Paul Hough has assembled an exceptional cast to make this show fly. Wilde’s comedy of manners may be a trifle but its humor is couched as a satire on Victorian high society, allowing him to make clever observations and amusing asides about class distinctions, marriage, money and the idle rich. Considering the current state of the economy and the cries of condemnation against the “1 percent,” this determinedly frothy play actual gives viewers plenty to think about once you stop laughing.

From left, Todd Carlton Lanker, Emily Peterson, Natalie Liccardello and Rusty Sneary (Shane Rowse/American Heartland Theatre)

The three-act play opens in the home of Algernon Moncrieff (Todd Carlton Lanker), a young man with a permanent sparkle in his eye, who at the outset is visited by his best friend, whom he knows as Ernest Worthing (Rusty Sneary). Ernest has come from the country, where he keeps a home, to propose to Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolyn Fairfax (Natalie Liccardello).

But Algernon is able to deduce from an inscription in a cigarette case that “Ernest” left behind weeks earlier that his friend is leading a double life. Indeed, Algie’s friend confesses that he’s “Ernest” in the city and “Jack” in the country, where he supports his 18-year-old ward, Cecily Cardew (Emily Peterson). Indeed, Cecily believes Jack has a brother (whom Jack has invented) named Ernest, a wastrel whose excesses are continually getting him in trouble in London.

Algernon takes note of Jack’s country address, and appears at the country estate posing as “Ernest” just as Jack had decided to announce the “death” of the unseen brother.

Jim Korinke and Emily Peterson (Shane Rowse/American Heartland Theatre)

Hovering over these activities is Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell (Jim Korinke), who is the final arbiter when it comes to marriage. Ultimately, Algernon (posing as Ernest) falls in love with Cecily and asks her to marry, but there can be no weddings until family secrets are unearthed in the third act.

Dominating the production is Lanker, whose Algernon is a marvelous creation. The performance is at all times crisp, specific, disciplined and unpredictable. Lanker’s handling of Wilde’s language is pitch-perfect and his sense of comic timing is flawless.

But then this show is full of good performances. Sneary is a memorable Jack and allows the performance to grow from reasonably restrained dimensions in the early going to absurd heights in Act 3. As Gwendolyn, Liccardello embraces the character’s ridiculous emotional expectations and creates a vivid, appealing performance. Peterson is sublime as Cecily, who lives in a fantasy world so rich that she writes letters to herself from a nonexistent fiancé. An extended scene between Gwendolyn and Cecily in Act 2 is a highlight of the production.

Cathy Wood is on the money as Miss Prism, Cecily’s tutor with secrets in her past. And John Rensenhouse has fun with some choice supporting roles. He first appears as Lane, Algernon’s dryly observant manservant; next we see him as the celibate Rev. Chasuble, who finds himself in a growing romantic relationship with Miss Prism; and, in some remarkable quick costume changes, he also plays Merriman, the ancient, hard-of-hearing butler at Jack’s country home. It’s as Merriman that Rensenhouse gets the biggest laughs with his tottering gait and ear-horn gags.

And Korinke, the old pro, brings his refined sense of comic timing to his impressive incarnation of Lady Bracknell. Watching Korinke play a Victorian woman is inherently campy, but the actor is smart enough to let Wilde’s writing generate the laughs. All he has to do is play the role, which he does with integrity. Read the rest at kansascity.com.

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