Lady Bracknell, the imposing grand dame of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” isn’t someone you’d want to spend the holidays with. Imperious, domineering and endlessly affronted, she can put grown men in their places with a single withering glance.
But as played to perfection by Sharon Lockwood in the Aurora Theatre Company’s new production, she’s the irresistible center of Oscar Wilde’s greatest comedy.
All she has to do is sweep into the Victorian drawing room of her nephew, Algernon Moncrieff (Patrick Kelly Jones), and it’s clear who’s in charge in this rollicking 1895 comedy of manners. And when she fixes her beady eye on Algernon’s friend, Jack Worthing (Mohammad Shehata), it’s easy to see why others describe her as a gorgon, “a monster, without being a myth.”
Lady Bracknell is horrified by Jack’s presence — and the revelation that he’s proposed to her daughter, Gwendolen Fairfax (Anna Ishida). The romantic intentions don’t end there: Algernon has set his sights on Jack’s young ward, Cecily (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera.) But Gwendolen and Cecily have both decided to marry a man named Ernest.
Aurora’s production, which opened Thursday in a brisk and very funny revival staged by artistic director designate Josh Costello, unfolds on the company’s compact stage, with stained glass portals and dark wood furnishings to securely anchor the action in the Victorian era (the scenic designs are by Nina Ball, with lighting by Wen-Ling Liao and sound by composer Chris Houston.)
Maggie Whitaker’s costumes are colorfully character-defining: Cecily in a charmingly youthful dress, Gwendolen more assertive in pants, and Lady Bracknell in a gown that suggests a small armored vehicle.
Under Costello’s fleet direction, Lockwood makes Lady Bracknell’s interrogation of Jack an episode of sheer comic brilliance.
But each character scores points as the 2-1/2 hour production unfolds, with Wilde’s dense thickets of verbiage coming across in volleys of wit, style, pinpoint timing and often affecting depth.
“Earnest” asks us to consider why we love who we love; Wilde, of course, was brutally punished for his own choice of partners. Weeks after this play premiered, he was charged with “gross indecency” and imprisoned. He never recovered.
Jones and Shehata are well-matched as the determined suitors, playing each scene with heightened intensity; Ishida’s steely Gwendolen and Rivera’s bright, impulsive Cecily are appealing as the headstrong objects of their affection. Trish Mulholland is an uncommonly volatile Miss Prism, one who makes her moment of revelation something surprisingly real. Michael Torres contributes a fine double turn as Algernon’s starchy manservant, Lane, and the decidedly odd prelate Chasuble.
Still, as always, this “Earnest” is Lady Bracknell’s show. “How absurd to talk of the equality of the sexes,” notes one of the characters. As long as Lockwood’s onstage, it’s really no contest.
The Importance of Being Earnest
Where: Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; extended through May 19
Tickets: $35 to $70
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org