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Stage preview: Wonderful characters, comical dialogue in 'Importance of Being Earnest'

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, March 28 2012 5:58 p.m. MDT

CENTERVILLE — Full of witty bon mot one-liners, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is an enduringly popular theater classic and considered to be among the funniest plays ever written.

To praise the stage show, English author H.G. Wells said, “More humorous dealing with theatrical conventions it would be difficult to imagine.”

“‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is very well-crafted, especially in the dialogue and the comedy of that dialogue,” said Jansen Davis, executive director of CenterPoint Legacy Theatre. “I’m of the opinion that it is the playwright’s finest work.”

Davis directs the farcical comedy at CenterPoint’s Connie Leishman Performance Hall, playing March 30-April 28.

The author of “The Importance of Being Earnest” is Oscar Wilde, one of London’s most popular playwrights in the early 1890s. Wilde is also seen as a master craftsman as the author of the gothic fiction novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

Wilde bristled at the stiff-upper-lip, stifling conformity in the social order of Victorian England and playfully skewered its conventions by writing the play. A dialogue spoken by the main character of Lady Bracknell, an indomitable aristocrat, typifies the play’s humor and Wilde’s view of societal norms. “Never speak disrespectfully of society,” Lady Bracknell says. “Only people who can’t get into it do that.”

“Oscar Wilde saw through the superficial nature of the society that he was born into,” Davis said. “The play was his way of poking fun at that society, without hopefully offended too many people.”

The character of Algernon Moncrieff, who takes on the guise of an alter ego who calls himself Earnest, is “very much like Oscar Wilde himself: very witty and very flippant,” the director said.

Davis singled out one of Algernon’s lines that is one of the play’s most comical and beloved: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”

“You have these really wonderful characters speaking very comical dialogue and, as in every Victorian comedy, it all works out in the end,” Davis said.

The topics of the play are “pertinent even today,” he added. “We still deal with surfaces and what is right and what is wrong. The play does such a good job of handling that. It has stood the test of time more than other dramas of the period.”

Davis explained his two reasons for deciding to stage “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

“It’s extremely funny and entertaining. So the first thing I hope that people take away from the play is that it is a night where they just are able to let everything else go and have a good time laughing together,” he said.

“The second is because of what the play teaches us. In a comic way, and sometimes that’s the best way to learn, we can realize that we get caught up sometimes in things that really aren’t that necessary. We can look at ourselves and say, ‘You know what? I don’t need to hold so tightly to that attitude. I can relax a bit and be able to accept someone for who they are rather than where they come from.’”

Although the customary starting time for productions at the Davis Center for the Performing Arts is 7:30 p.m., Davis said “The Importance of Being Earnest” begins at 7 p.m. Because there is a separate production on the main stage, the curtain time was altered at the theater’s smaller venue to facilitate patron entrance into the two theaters.

If you go:

What: “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde

Where: Centerville’s Davis Center for the Performing Arts Connie Leishman Performance Hall

When: Mondays-Saturdays at 7 p.m., March 30–April 28

How much: $15

Tickets: 801-298-1302 or CenterPointTheatre.org

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