When Oscar Wilde’s new play was scheduled to premier at London’s The Haymarket in 1893, an actor came to him, wanting a part. Wilde turned him down: “There are very few men’s parts. It is a woman’s play.” That it is. For a late Victorian audience Wilde’s play of witty intelligence and flashes of truth blew in like a fresh wind. He posited an American girl (Audrey Ward) played against staid English society.
I idly wondered what the Walnut Street Theatre stage may have looked like for the 1894 touring production of this play, and was pleased to see that for this run director Bernard Havard has chosen to retain the old fashioned, typically static staging of 126 years ago. (But then there’s more to Roman Tatarowicz’s inspired staging. You’d have to go and see for yourself.) Led by Lady Pontefract (Mary Martello), a fine cast of gathered characters deliver their stand-up sitting down, dropping a stream of bon mots from the sofa. An exception, Lord Illingworth (Ian Merrill Peakes) grandstands his lines with humorous gestures and flourishes.
Wilde’s contrarian trick is turning things around, i.e., a sample of his famed lines: “I adore simple pleasures. They are the last refuge of the complex,” or “A man can be happy with any woman as long as he does not love her,” or “Talk to every woman as if you loved her, and to every man as if he bored you, and at the end of your first season you will have the reputation of possessing the most perfect social tact.”
But the dazzling repartee of the first two acts of A Woman of No Importance dwindles for a time into an un-Wilde-y lecture in the third act. When an Ur-feminist who made a mistake refuses a possible chance to be happy, the act becomes for a time a long explanation and a saccharine treatise. Yet that isn’t the only story. Ultimately, the play is both happy and sad. While some characters may be sustained by regrets and secrets, others will do well. And audiences will be happy.
How tragic that courageous Oscar Wilde, wit par excellence, was destroyed by a provincial and unforgiving society. And how wonderful that we have his works and can go and see his plays.
[Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street] January 14-March 1, 2020; walnutstreettheatre.org