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A Woman of No Importance

Kathleen Betsko Yale and Kelli Bocock-Natale offer standout performances in the Irish Classical's "A Woman of No Importance."

Josephine Hogan’s production of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance is delightfully satisfying on so many levels. Her steady directorial hand has guided the company through Wilde’s epigram-packed script, from witticism to witticism, with an even pace, fueled by emotional suspense. Moreover, she has used the circular space of the Andrews Theatre, an insurmountable challenge for many a director, with fluidity and style, creating an ever-evolving range of stage pictures that heighten the drama within a handsome setting by David Dwyer.

The “woman” of the play’s title is Mrs. Arbuthnot, an unwed mother who has, by masquerading as a widow, managed to maintain her respectability and to raise her son, Gerald, in security and propriety, despite the repressive social dictates of the era. There never was, in fact, a Mr. Arbuthnot. Gerald’s birth was the result of his mother’s trust in a man who claimed to love her and promised to marry her, only to abandon her when she revealed her pregnancy.

The inciting incident of the story occurs before start of the play, when Gerald is offered a job as secretary to Lord Illingworth. The young man reveals this development with his entrance line in the very first scene; its import will only be revealed much later. Gerald is unaware that wealthy and powerful Illingworth is actually the father who abandoned him and his mother to an uncertain future.

Wilde artfully uses the first act to dazzle the audience with a dizzying flourish of his signature quips. With these, he creates an array of self-absorbed upper-class characters and builds a social world to contain them. In the second half of the play, these words will echo as self-condemnation, leading up to Mrs. Arbuthnot’s moral triumph.

It is often repeated that this is Wilde’s weakest play, but such an appraisal is entirely at odds with the marvelously clever script and its impressive performance history. The original 1893 production starring Herbert Beerbohm Tree was a triumph. George Bernard Shaw always considered the script to be superior to The Importance of Being Earnest. Indeed, condemnation of A Woman of No Importance only emerged subsequent to Wilde’s conviction and humiliation on a charge of “gross indecency.” Suddenly, similarities between the character of smarmy but clever Lord Illingworth and Wilde’s own flippant public persona became disturbing rather than entertaining. An American tour of the play was cancelled.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree remained devoted to the piece and played Lord Illingworth again after Wilde’s death. On this occasion, however, critic Lytton Strachey opined that Wilde had created an incestuous homosexual relationship in his portrayals of Gerald and Lord Illingworth. This assertion seems absurd today, but underscores the serious damage done to Wilde’s literary reputation.

Happily, Hogan’s production reveals this to be a powerful and finely crafted work, a play that holds our attention without flagging and that alternately inspires laughter and profound empathy.

The text of the play in no way supports Strachey’s creepy interpretation. On the contrary, as written, Lord Illingworth perceives the best of himself in a young man who turns out to be his own son. He attempts to advance the boy, but his past ill deeds and ongoing narcissism prevent him from ever benefitting from the joys of fatherhood.

Hogan has populated her production with a cadre of seasoned character actors who embody Wilde’s vivid characters with invention and energy. They perform alongside a cast of young up-and-comers who seem energized by proximity to such inspiring older colleagues.

Eileen Dugan is perfection as Mrs. Arbuthnot, creating a woman who is simultaneously worn down by social necessity and strengthened by maternal love. She provides the emotional core of the production and offers a deft and subtle performance, managing to evoke a real and affecting human being, and to remind us just why Bernard Shaw liked this purposeful comedy with its powerful social critique. (He would also admire Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, two years later.)

Shaw wrote Mrs. Warren’s Profession in the same year that Wilde wrote A Woman of No Importance, but Mrs. Warren, with its overt references to prostitution, was banned from production for the next 20 years. Tellingly, writing a supposedly immoral play in no way damaged Shaw’s career or reputation, but the exposure of Wilde’s homosexuality destroyed both, while diminishing respect for his dramatic work.

Others in Hogan’s production worthy of note include Kelli Bocock-Natale, whose performance as Lady Hunstanton is a veritable master class in comic precision and playfulness. In every gesture, inflection, and intention, this is arguably a perfect portrayal. Bocock-Natale nails Wilde’s comic rhythms and repetitions with such freshness and flawlessness that they seem to have been written just this morning and specifically for her. This is an astonishing comic performance.

Always a pleasure on stage, Kathleen Betsko Yale underplays socially inflexible but romantically insecure Lady Caroline with winning finesse. Her perpetual disapproval is delicious.

Among the gentlemen, Vincent O’Neill doesn’t waste a syllable of Lord Illingworth, assuredly one of Wilde’s greatest comic creations. When the character fails to win with charm, O’Neill pushes him toward the contemptible, making the ultimate failure of the man’s schemes all the more gratifying. The result is an entirely satisfying performance as one of Wilde’s most famous characters.

Also worthy of note is the performance of Alan Trinca as Gerald Arbuthnot. This relative newcomer projects an appealing stage presence as he sustains believable affection for Dugan’s Mrs. Arbuthnot and for young Eliza Vann’s Hester Worsley. In short, he convincingly creates a son of whom both parents can be proud and navigates the dramatically critical balancing act between his character’s conflicting desires for career advancement and love.

The setting has been moved from the late Victorian to the pre World War I era for this production, allowing costume designer Dixon Reynolds to make everyone look marvelous, while evoking character and class. The color and line of this production, from hem to hat, and from buckle to green carnation are as clever, humorous, and as thoughtful as the script itself.

The capable company also includes Gerry Maher as Sir John Pontefract, Chris Kelly as Mr. Kelvil, Doug Weyand as Archdeacon Daubeny, Geoff Pictor as Francis, Diane Curley as Lady Stutfield, Jenn Stafford as Mrs. Allonby, and Kelsey Mogensen as Alice. The production continues at the Andrews Theatre through February 9.