For its first main stage production of the 2020s, Walnut Street Theatre has mounted a sparkling revival of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance from 1893, a seldom performed work that ridicules Victorian double standards.
Considered Wilde’s weakest play, funny but ultimately a moralistic scold, it’s a challenge to pull off successfully.
We slowly learn the secret that animates the “serious” dramatic action: 20 years ago Rachel Arbuthnot (Alicia Roper) was seduced by Lord Illingworth (Ian Merrill Peakes), then gave birth to an illegitimate child. But the real interest of A Woman lies in all the surrounding “undramatic” scenes where Wilde’s iconoclastic wit takes over.
Director Bernard Havard plays to Wilde’s strength, assembling a cast with so many Barrymore awards they could fill up several bookcases in set designer Roman Tatarowicz’s opulent drawing room. Upper-class folk wearing sumptuous costumes by Mary Folino prattle on deliciously before Rachel’s secret comes to light.
What a delight they are! Playfully bewildered Lady Hunstanton (Jane Ridley) and Mrs. Allonby (Karen Peakes, who’s married in real life to the cast’s other Peakes), talk past each other in mocking banter. Lady Caroline Pontefract (WST favorite Mary Martello) needles Sir John Pontefract (Bill Van Horn) in a running gag.
Lady Stutfield (Jessica Bedford) is always enthusiastically clueless, while Member of Parliament Mr. Kelvil, (Paul L. Nolan) and Archdeacon Daubeny (Peter Schmitz) are too comically small for their social positions.
But the party is over when a young American, Miss Hester Worsley (played by Temple sophomore Audrey Ward), arrives to lecture on class wickedness. Wilde intends that you take this seriously, but like the bemused English leisure class, you cannot wait for Hester to get off the stage.
Lord Illingworth is the formal villain, but he’s too charming to feel like much of one because Wilde gives him an enormous number of stunning lines. Actor Peakes’ comic timing is impeccable.
And Wilde’s moralizing denouement with son Gerald Arbuthnot (Brandon O’Rourke) is so melodramatic and draggy you only wish you were back in one of those early scenes when you were having so much fun.
Is A Woman relevant? Miss Hester’s idyllic description of a virtuous America is ludicrous, and it never occurred to Wilde that the sun would, indeed, set on the English empire. But gender-justice issues persist, and Wilde’s uproarious vision of an oblivious, self-congratulatory ruling class rings true forever.
A Woman of No Importance
Through March 1 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St.