Love and laughter have claimed the spotlight in Laurel Mill Playhouse's current run of Irishman Oscar Wilde's masterpiece, "The Importance of Being Earnest," directed by Rocky Nunzio.
First performed in the winter of 1895 at the St. James Theatre in Victorian London at the height of Wilde's success as a writer (he published his novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," five years earlier), the play closed abruptly after 86 performances when the married playwright's double life as a homosexual became known.
In 1896, Wilde was prosecuted for gross indecency and sentenced to two years of hard labor. Upon his release from prison, Wilde left London in exile and moved to France, where he died destitute in 1900.
"The Importance of Being Earnest" — lauded for its witty dialogue and adapted to film in 1952, 1992 and 2002 — has lived on through stage revivals since.
Produced here by Laurel resident Maureen Rogers and Spencer Nelson, the comedy of wordplay toys with the themes of marriage, misbehavior and the tenets of Victorian society.
The farce comes to life in two locales: the London flat of Algernon Moncrieff (played by Kyle Kelley, of Laurel) and the garden at the country manor house of Jack Worthing (played by Nick Cherone).
For this show, the wall flats are painted a pretty pastel blue with touches of white stenciling that fade some under lights designed by Nunzio and Michael Hartsfield. The set is highly functional and accommodates the actors moving and blocking nicely, but it appears a bit under-dressed, particularly on the bare walls stage right.
Carol Mead Cartmell's striking Victorian costume design (with assistance from Margie McGugan and Nunzio) and an attractive cast add much to the show's visual charm. Nelson and Billy Georg are credited with sound design.
Nunzio has assembled an animated cast of thespians to keep audiences in stitches.
As the butler Lane (Act 1) and Merriman (Act 2), Jim Berard's stiff upper lip never falters despite the often-nonsensical demands he juggles.
At the beginning of Act 1, Kelley as Algernon, or Algy, sets a delightful tone of foppish mischief as he teases and bullies his friend, Ernest, into swapping confessions.
Producing a cigarette case that Ernest has misplaced with a mysterious inscription — "From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack" — Algy demands an explanation.
Proclaiming, "It's a very ungentlemanly thing to read a private cigarette case," Ernest admits that he is Jack.
Cecily (played by Julie Rogers, of Laurel), he says, is Jack's ward. His younger, libertine brother named "Ernest" is a fake identity Jack uses in London to protect his reputation at home in the country. He refuses to tell Algy the location of his manor house there.
Kelley and Cherone squabble playfully like brothers in cahoots; their characters' repartee brews an affectionate chemistry that will endure to the absurdly satisfying end.
Algy reveals that he, too, has created a fictional person; his dying friend "Bunbury" often calls him to his side in the country, a deception that Algy uses to avoid attending boring social obligations.
Jack intends to propose to Algy's cousin, the lovely Gwendolen Fairfax (played by Jenn Robinson), and to "kill off" his fictional brother.
As Gwendolen, Jack's love interest, Robinson delivers an outstanding performance. Wavering between stylish sophistication and passion for a man (who must be) named "Ernest," she never once falls into the farcical trap of mugging; her characterization, timing and facial expressions are always spot-on.
Rosalie Daelemans' strong stage presence as Lady Bracknell also fits her character; she shines as the dignified dowager dragon that must be appeased if love is to conquer all.
Rogers, who enters at the beginning of Act 2, is fresh and winning as Cecily, a child-like ingénue on the cusp of womanhood.
As Cecily's tutor, Miss Prism, Tracy Davison exudes moral righteousness while flirting subtly with the charming Reverend Chasuble, a role enacted beautifully by Tim Evans.
The pace was a little sluggish in spots for a farce on Saturday night, but the Playhouse's rendition is well played across the board. Rife with passion, puns and wonderful nonsense, "The Importance of Being Earnest" at Laurel Mill Playhouse should keep audiences enthralled.
"The Importance of Being Earnest" continues weekends through June 26; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. General admission is $20. Students 18 and under, active duty military and seniors 65 and over pay $15. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2, or buy tickets online at laurelmillplayhouse.org