Theater companies are fond of selecting Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" because it reads so well.
It's overflowing with clever twists of dialogue and wicked epigrams that skewer many of society's institutions. The play exposes the folly of human pretension and remains biting and relevant 109 years after it premiered in London. But frequently theater companies discover the hard way that one cannot actually become earnest in the presentation or it rapidly becomes ponderous.
After all, what does "earnest" mean? Intense, serious, grave. Without a light touch, without a tongue-in-cheek sensibility, Wilde's droll remarks are drained of their value and the play is forced to rely on its ridiculous plot, intended to serve only as a convenient medium for the wordplay.
The Virginia Shakespeare Company has avoided that trap, as director Kerrie Seymour deftly keeps a light touch and combines the troupe's trademark physical approach to comedy with Wilde's banter.
The improbable plot highlights the courtship methods of two society bachelors in the 1890s, Jack Worthing (John Stone) and Algernon Moncrieff (Timothy Shaw), a stand-in for Wilde. To facilitate entertaining themselves away from home, the playboys create fictional characters to explain their absences.
Jack meets fair Gwendolen (Cristina Blanco), daughter of the formidable Lady Bracknell (Lisa Ricciardi-Thompson), introducing himself as his alter-ego Ernest. Algernon pretends to be Jack's fictitious brother, also named Ernest, as he woos Cecily (Brittney K. Sweeney). Coincidently, both young ladies insist that they would marry only someone named Ernest, leading the duplicitous men to arrange to be christened with that name. A subplot reveals that Jack was an orphan, left in a handbag at Victoria Station as a baby, making him an unsuitable suitor in Lady Bracknell's eyes.
The cast approaches the occasionally ornate language with a modern, playful sensibility, particularly in the case of Shaw, who is continually unleashing Wilde's pithy observations, including, "In married life, three is company and two is none."
Stone allows Jack/Ernest to become increasingly tightly wound as the plot grows more entangled, a nice counterpoint to Shaw's nonchalant Algernon/Ernest. Sweeney alternates between an exaggerated comic pout and unrestrained enthusiasm. Ricciardi-Thompson's Lady Bracknell bulldozes her way over everyone onstage, launching verbal broadsides. (To Jack: "To lose one parent is understandable; to lose both looks like carelessness.")
A more subtle delight is watching Susan Ross's face. This marvelous character actor utilizes a collection of grimaces, sly looks and feigned innocence as Miss Prism, Cecily's governess.
The most enjoyable moments come when only two characters are onstage, engaging in verbal jousting, such as the first act, when Jack and Algernon converse, and much later, when Cecily and Gwendolen face off. The middle act always tends to be a bit slow, as Wilde delves a bit too much into the complicated plot before returning to his main function of exposing hypocrisy.
Oddly, the theater company has skimped on scenic design, playing the action against black curtains with only a few movable set pieces. That move diminishes the sense of the ornate society from which Wilde was attempting to strip the facade. Plus, it is boring. Even a rug might be nice, although the playwright has already given the actors much to stand on.
"The Importance of Being Earnest" will be performed through June 26 by the Virginia Shakespeare Company at the Cramer Center, 9008 Center St., Manassas. Showtime Fridays and Saturdays is 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. For tickets, call 800-955-5566 or visit www.tickets.com. For more information, go to www.vashakes.org.