Review by Danny Gaisin
Oscar Wilde was a Victorian author whose plays; ‘Windermere’s Fan’; ‘Ideal Husband’ & ‘…Ernest’ were all bigger hits than A Woman of no Importance, currently on stage at SHAW’s Festival Theatre. Directed by Eda Holmes, the play is (sort of) updated to 1951 although the costumes; dated plot and morality are still rooted in the last half of the nineteenth century. Wilde’s fascination with satirizing the upper class and confronting the double-standard of the period is reflected in all his plays. Photo by David Cooper
Holmes interpretation does nothing about the plethora of ‘Lady This’ and ‘Lady that’ plus the surfeit of genealogical detail that slows the pace of Act I to a point of audience ennui, only abrogated by the pithy comments of the superficial female characters on stage. Must mention their costumes are the impediment to early departure. The ‘Gracie Allen-ish’ dialogues spoken with droll aplomb by Fiona Reid reflect on her experience as an actor. The females’ comments would make every misogynist cheer, except they’re male-denigrating. A stand-out of the clique is Diana Donnelly’s ‘Mrs. Allonby’ whose dicta are just shy of slanderous. She’s also a stunner who utilizes posture and posing to great advantage.
The focal trio are Martin Happer as Lord Illingworth, a shallow superficial gentleman who has just hired Wade Bogert-O’Brien’s ‘Gerald Arbuthnot’ as his secretary, thus giving the young man an entry into society and potential prosperity. Fiona Byrne portrays Rachel Arbuthnot, Gerald’s mother who raises un-named objections to her son taking on the position. All three give strong impressions of personal agendas and the tensions & dialogue make Act II a powerhouse that contrasts with the philosophical shallowness that opens the play. Lines such as ‘If a man is old enough to do wrong; he’s old enough to do right’ are laconically aphoristic.
Contrasting characters are portrayed by Julia Course as a young American heiress and Jeff Meadows, an M.P. with some social sense of fairness. Mary Haney & Claire Jullien are the other gossipy clothes-horses and fortunately their discourses never sink to the level of ‘The View”; an accolade award to Miss Holmes. The closing scene that pits Happer, Byrne; Course & her son ‘Gerald’ in a four-corner boxing ring is a thespian-defining piece of theatre. The quartet provide the meaning and rationale for what Wilde tries to explicate. Given his own reputation as a scandalous dandy, and his criticism of what was around his social set, he knew of what he wrote. The set captures what this peasant assumes is (or was) the ambiance of a class ’A’ domicile, but somehow doesn’t reflect any of the fancy McMansions I recall from my own 50’s period.
A Woman of no importance closes with a paraphrase of the play’s title. Byrne delivers it with such a wallop that it’s definitely worth hanging in until final curtain. She and her co-cast members are at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 22nd