A Wilde Little Morality Play

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I’ve long been a fan of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, but I have only a passing familiarity with some of his other plays. I’ve seen film versions of Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband, though I doubt that I could recall what either one is about. And I only know Salomé from the high-voltage opera that Richard Strauss fashioned out of it. Before this afternoon I knew nothing of A Woman of No Importance, which is being performed in a spirited production at the Walnut Street Theatre.

Filled to the bursting point with Wilde’s trademark witticisms, A Woman of No Importance features some of his most famous lines, such as “The English country gentleman galloping after a fox—the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.”

Unlike the farcical goings on in Earnest, A Woman of No Importance is possibly better classified as a dramedy. The first act and a half contain lots of the banter and social satire of English society that one has come to expect of Wilde; there is even an American character thrown into the mix to put a sharper point on the satire. Only at the end of Act I is there a hint of more serious matters to come, when one of the characters recognizes the handwriting on a letter but quickly dismisses it as resembling that of “a woman of no importance.” The viewer is safe in concluding that the woman in question is very important indeed.

And that is confirmed shortly after she appears in Act II, as halfway through that act the action turns dramatic as a dark secret is revealed. I won’t reveal it here, but I doubt that there is any member of a modern audience who won’t figure it out well in advance of the reveal.

After that the play spins back and forth between broadly comic and darkly dramatic scenes, although Wilde being Wilde, some of the funniest lines occur during the most dramatic moments, and there is much debate about morality and the unequal treatment of men and women who run afoul of society’s mores. Good heavens! Aren’t we still having that debate?

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Needless to say the Walnut’s production is top notch with a brilliant cast that keeps the laughs coming and the action flowing. Everyone in the cast is terrific, but I just want to mention Mary Martello, who wrings every last bit of comic juice out of Lady Caroline Pontefract’s lines, and Ian Merrill Peakes, properly smarmy as the witty Lord Illingworth, using his whole body to extract the laughs from the audience. And then there is Alicia Roper, who is excellent as the title character Mrs. Arbuthnot; she must be convincing in both the comedic and the dramatic scenes and she succeeds wonderfully.

Some of Wilde’s satire of English society still seems relevant, spanning the centuries and vastly different societies. For example, when Lord Illingworth is asked if he regards the House of Lords as a better institution than the House of Commons, he replies:

“A much better institution, of course.  We in the House of Lords are never in touch with public opinion.  That makes us a civilised body.”

I don’t know when the Walnut added A Woman of No Importance to their schedule, but it couldn’t possibly seem more relevant than it does today.

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