A classic comedy of errors is coming to the Whidbey Playhouse stage Feb. 11-27.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde, set in England in the late 1800s, comes complete with mistaken identity, romance and, as cast member Andrew Huggins put it, “people being ridiculous.”
Huggins plays the story’s central protagonist, John Worthing. Worthing, who adopts the name and persona of his alternate identity Ernest whenever he comes to London, becomes engaged to Gwendolen Fairfax at the beginning of the play, only to realize that she only loves him because she believes his name is Ernest.
Disastrous and hilarious confusion erupts when Worthing’s friend Algernon Moncrieff uses the same pseudonym to woo a love interest of his own — Worthing’s young ward, Cecily Cardew — and both couples find themselves at Worthing’s country manor together.
“It’s a lot of very witty nonsense,” Huggins said. “All my invitations to my friends are, ‘Come see me be a hoity-toity British person who lies a lot.’”
Beyond giving viewers a laugh, the play also provides commentary on the era, according to Ingrid Schwalbe, who plays Worthing’s snooty aunt, Lady Augusta Bracknell. She said Wilde’s distaste for the Victorian era is captured in Bracknell’s over-the-top hypocrisy and elitism.
“It’s just a wonderful sociopolitical comment on the time and what was going on,” said Schwalbe, who said she has dreamed of playing Lady Bracknell since she was a graduate student studying acting.
The fast-paced banter and tongue-in-cheek humor upon which the show relies came naturally to the cast members, whom director Tamara Sykes described as an exceptionally talented group.
Sykes said she was first blown away at the auditions. “The Importance of Being Earnest” is the Playhouse’s third show since reopening from the pandemic closure, and the audition garnered more prospective actors than its predecessors. Sykes said she could have cast the whole show twice, both because of the number of community members who tried out and because everyone who auditioned was good enough to be cast.
Though auditions took place in early December, the group didn’t begin rehearsing until January. Because of how busy the holiday season was for everyone, Sykes told cast members to memorize their parts on their own, and they would reconvene in the new year. Huggins said some of the cast members would get together to run lines before the official rehearsals began.
To Sykes’ delight, the entire cast showed up to the first rehearsal almost completely off-book.
“It meant that the time that we had in rehearsal was really useful time,” she said.
The cast is a blend of faces familiar to the local stage and actors making their Playhouse debuts. Gary Gillespie, who plays Rev. Canon Frederick Chasuble, the pastor to whom Worthing and Moncrieff flock to be christened as “Ernest,” moved to Whidbey Island a year ago. He had had some acting experience in the past, and he said he and his wife were delighted to discover their new home was within walking distance of the Playhouse. When he heard the theater was putting on the Oscar Wilde classic, he decided to audition.
“When the director called me, I had a little speech prepared explaining why it’s okay that I didn’t get picked, and I’ll try again next time, and then she tells me that she picked me,” he remembered, chuckling.
Participating in the show, he said, has been one of the highlights of his first year on the island.
Jim Waters, who plays Moncrieff, and Rod Todd, who plays Lane the butler, are also performing on the Playhouse stage for the first time. Waters said he was impressed by how quickly the cast put the show together, especially considering the dialogue’s quick back-and-forth.
Other cast members were equally amazed, including Marianne Campos, who portrays Cardew. She said though the British accent was manageable, the late-1800s dialect presented more of a challenge. Still, she said her castmates helped her come out of her shell and succeed in the role.
“We all just click,” she said of the cast’s easy rapport.
Other cast members concurred.
“It’s been one of the best casts that I’ve worked with,” Schwalbe said.
Performances of “The Importance of Being Earnest” will take place at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays from Feb. 11 to Feb. 27. Tickets can be purchased on the Playhouse’s website for $18. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a recent negative COVID test is required to attend, and audience members must wear masks at all times during the performance. Live-streaming options are also available.