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The importance of being comedic: A review of UNCW Department of Theatre’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”

What do a misplaced handbag, multiple cases of mistaken identity and Bunburying have in common? UNCW Mainstage Theatre’s latest production, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” (Courtesy of UNCW Department of Theatre)

Jack Worthing (Cole Warren) is in a conundrum.  

He longs to marry Gwendolyn Fairfax (Abigail Hamm) but faces opposition from her mother, Lady Bracknell (Malik Fowler) and cousin, Algernon Moncrief (Michael Sayfou). He also has a secret—all his London friends know him as a single gentleman named Earnest and are unaware of his true name and his ward, Cecily Cardew (Elizabeth Montgomery) in the country. What ensues are several cases of mistaken identity, love before first sight and consistent laughter in the two-hour drama-filled comedy that is “The Importance of Being Earnest.” 

Standout performers include Warren and Sayfou, who spend a large portion of their time onstage interacting with each other, and their complicated dynamic is one of the highlights of the performance. Both actors are purposeful in their movements and embody their characters in a way that makes the relationship between Jack and Algernon full of both tension and brotherhood, as illustrated in a scene where they argue over their dual identities and muffins. Fowler shines as the snobby Lady Bracknell, bringing wit to the role and creating a true connection with the audience. Lady Bracknell’s approval of Jack is crucial in his quest to marry Gwendolyn, and her continuous back-and-forth adds further conflict to the story.  

Jack and Algernon argue over muffins, engagements and the name Earnest in “The Importance of Being Earnest” while maintaining a friendship throughout the story. (Janet Adamson/UNCW Department of Theatre)

The eventual romance between Algernon and Cecily is inevitable from the moment he learns of her existence. Sayfou and Montgomery make what could have otherwise been a trite dynamic and imbue it with humor and charm through clear devotion, with Algernon willing to wait almost twenty years to marry Cecily. Despite the unideal circumstances of their meeting, it is easy to root for these characters who aim to overcome their misunderstandings and find a happy conclusion.  

Victoria Hope Gibson and Adian Koppinger present an unlikely couple as Miss Prism and Reverend Canon Chusble, and though their individual countenances differ greatly, their brief moments together add to the trivial tone. Kevin Vernon also uses his limited stage time to bring brevity to heavier scenes and invoke genuine laughter from the crowd. 

Warren (left) and Hamm (right) star as Jack and Gwendolyn, a couple navigating the structures of London society and their own preconceptions on the path to engagement. (Janet Adamson/UNCW Department of Theatre)

Though the sharp-witted conversations are occasionally difficult to understand due to the show’s fast-paced nature and the use of affected British accents, intentional movements and clear timing from the cast make their meaning clear. 

While the plot often relies too heavily on happenstance and convenience, the thoughtful direction from Robin Post and graceful manner in which the cast balances comedy and depth, allowing for suspension of disbelief and making even the most unrealistic aspects of the story understandable in the world they have created.  

Michael Allen’s set designs transition beautifully from the inside of Algernon’s home in London to the idyllic garden and drawing room of the Manor House in the countryside. The flowery archway in the garden and ornate furniture inside the Manor House speak to the life Jack created for himself and represent the change enacted in Act II and Act III. Sound design (Robin Post) and lighting (Elizabeth M. Stewart) help enhance the setting with humor and style. The use of costuming (Mark D. Sorensen) and props further immerses the audience in Victorian-era England and highlights character-defining details, like the connection between Gwendolyn and Cecily through their diaries and the contrast between Algernon’s flashy style and Jack’s muted wardrobe.  

Costumes, like Lady Bracknell’s red dress pictured above, highlight class and personality differences, as individual wardrobes evolve as the characters change. (Janet Adamson/UNCW’s Department of Theatre)

Full of humorous hypocrisy and vibrant characters, “The Importance of Being Earnest” proves to be a successful end to the 2023-2024 UNCW Mainstage Theater performance season.  

Tickets range from $6 to $15 with a discount for students, seniors and UNCW faculty and alumni and can be purchased from the Kenan Auditorium box office or online. Performances continue April 26-29.  

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