Wilde comedy to open Thursday at The Lantern

Carol Rolf/Contributing Writer Published July 16, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.
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Carol Rolf/Contributing Photographer

The Conway Community Arts Association and The Lantern Theatre will present Oscar Wilde’s comedy The Importance of Being Earnest on Thursday through July 30. Among the cast members are, seated, from left, Trent Reese appearing as Algernon Moncrieff, Kathy Busch as Cecily Cardew, Darby Burdine as Gwendolen Fairfax and Shua Miller as Jack Worthing; and back row, Shane Atkinson as Lane, Len Schlientz as the Rev. Canon Chasuble and Jennie Denniston as Miss Prism. Not shown are Stephen Perry, who plays Merriman, and Actor X, who plays Lady Bracknell.

CONWAY — The Conway Community Arts Association will present Oscar Wilde’s Victorian farce The Importance of Being Earnest on Thursday through July 30 at The Lantern Theatre, 1021 Van Ronkle St.

Billed locally as “a tale of alter egos, deception, disguise and misadventure,” the comedy, which was originally produced at the St. James Theatre in London in 1895, is directed by Charles Bane of Conway.

“This play is a comedy, specifically a farce,” Bane said.

“Farce is the grandparent of vaudeville and burlesque and the great-grandparent of slapstick. It’s supposed to be outlandish and funny; however, Wilde also wanted it to be very self-aware,” Bane said.

“What sets Earnest apart from other farces is that the humor of a typical farce is in the situation and the physical gestures played for big laughs,” he said. “Wilde’s play has both of these but gets most of its humor from the dialogue.”

Bane said that even the title of the comedy is “deceiving. It’s a play on words.”

“The word ‘earnest’ is an adjective for honest, sincere or truthful, but no one is actually any of these things in this play. The two male leads both pretend to be a man named ‘Ernest,’ which is spelled differently than the adjective ‘earnest,’ but both words obviously sound the same and mean the same thing,” he said.

“So the title and the final line of the play, ‘I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest,’ are ludicrous,” Bane said. “The line means that Jack finally understands the importance of being honest, sincere and truthful and of being named Ernest. He has been neither of these things his entire life.”

Bane said the setting for the play, according to the stage directions, is the present.

“In Wilde’s time, ‘the present’ would have been the Victorian era,” Bane said.

“In our production, we try to give the play a modern flavor, while at the same time keeping the feeling of the Victorian era. We’re doing that with our costumes, which our costume director, Kolby Black [of Conway], has designed using a little more modern look,” he said.

“We are also giving a nod to the steampunk movement, which is a form of science fiction that highlights and expands the industrial technology that was just starting to surface in the Victorian era. In steampunk, there are steam-powered machines that didn’t really exist at the time, but the period did have movie projectors, cameras, the Ferris wheel and even early models of cars,” he said.

“We are dropping little hints of steampunk using images of the Ferris wheel and gears, for example, to show that the Victorians weren’t as primitive as people often believe,” Bane said. “New technology was popping up all the time.”

Bane, who is making his directorial debut at The Lantern, said one of the reasons the CCAA Board of Directors decided to produce this play is because “it is one of the funniest plays ever written.”

“We didn’t want to do a straight-up modern-dress version because the language is so Victorian,” he said. “But the themes are so universal. The play is about hiding but ultimately finding and showing your true identity. In an age of identity politics and fluidity, the play may be more relevant than ever.”

Bane is an assistant professor at Harding University in Searcy, where he teaches courses in film and literature.

“I’m currently in the English department, but I will be moving to the communication department next year to direct a new film major,” he said. “Film is my primary creative outlet, but I do occasionally venture into the theater, usually in a behind-the-scenes production capacity.

“Although this is my first time to direct at The Lantern, I did serve as the music supervisor for The Normal Heart last year,” he said. “Other community-theater credits include directing You Can’t Take It With You at the Conway Dinner Theater, playing drums for Love and … Broadway at the Red Curtain Theatre and a rare onstage performance as the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol at the Conway Dinner Theater.”

The cast list of The Importance of Being Earnest includes the following:

• Shua Miller of Conway appears as Jack Worthing, who has an alter ego, Ernest, and is in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolyn.

“I play Jack, who has invented a brother, Ernest,” said Miller,

who is a longtime supporter of the community arts group and is a past president, and now treasurer, of the CCAA Board of Directors. He is also the technical director at The Lantern.

“In town, I’m known as Ernest. In the country, I am Jack,” Miller said as he described his character. “I can do a lot more things as Ernest.

“This play is so funny. It’s very witty. It’s often billed as ‘one of the wittiest plays in the English language.’”

• Trent Reese of Conway portrays Algernon Moncrieff, Jack’s best friend. Algernon

also has an alter ego, an imaginary friend, Bunbury.

Algernon is in love with Jack’s ward, Cecily.

“I did know this play, but I really never got the humor until now,” said Reese, who is a longtime supporter of CCAA and has acted in, and directed, many shows at The Lantern. He is president of the CCAA Board of Directors and is the box office manager at The Lantern. He teaches theater at Independence Living Services in Conway.

“This show has so much tongue and cheek … satire. It’s very smart humor. It’s a very romantic comedy, a Harry Meets Sally type of romance,” he said.

“It’s about love … self identity. It makes fun of marriage; it makes you ask, ‘What is a relationship?’” Reese said.

“Jack has created his alter ego, Ernest, and my character, Algernon, has created his … an imaginary friend he calls Bunbury,” Reese said.

“Bunbury is always sick, and Algernon has to go and see about him,” Reese said. “That’s how he gets out of things that he doesn’t want to do. [Wilde calls that ‘bunburying’ in the play.]”

• Darby Burdine of Conway plays Gwendolen Fairfax. Gwendolen is Algernon’s cousin, who is in love with Jack, whom she knows as Ernest.

“My character is very prim and proper,” said Burdine, who teaches drama at Bigelow High School.

“She is Lady Bracknell’s daughter and is in love with Jack. She doesn’t take herself too seriously, but she can be a little controlling. She thinks Jack is Ernest, and that becomes an issue,” Burdine said, smiling.

“This is really a fun play,” she said. “I’ve taught it to my students at Bigelow. They enjoy it; it’s still meaningful today.”

Burdine has appeared in many productions at The Lantern, including Almost, Maine, The Rocky Horror Show and Smoke on the Mountain.

• Kathy Busch of Russellville appears as Cecily Cardew, Jack’s ward, who is in love with Algernon when he pretends to be Ernest.

“My character is Algernon’s love interest. She is very young and innocent,” Busch said.

“I am happy to be in this hilarious show,” she said, noting that she had read the play during an introduction to theater class at Missouri State University, where she is a sophomore majoring in musical theater.

This is Busch’s first production at The Lantern. She is a graduate of Russellville High School, where she appeared in several theatrical productions. She has also appeared at the

Rialto Community Arts Center in Morrilton and at the Conway Dinner Theater.

• Jeannie Denniston of Conway portrays Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess who has a romantic interest in the

Rev. Chasuble.

“I play the prim-and-proper tutor,” Denniston said, laughing. “It’s just a support role … but this play is so funny.

“It was written almost 125 years ago and is still funny. It is very, very clever. The audience should love it.”

Denniston is a longtime supporter of community theater in both Conway and Morrilton. Among her most recent roles at The Lantern was that of Grace Berger in The Hammerstone, by Jon Tuttle.

Denniston is a part-time trial lawyer in Conway County and is married to fellow actor Len Schlientz.

• Len Schlientz of Conway plays the Rev. Canon Chasuble, the rector on Jack’s estate, who has romantic feelings for Miss Prism.

“This is a wonderful play,” Schlientz said. “That’s why it’s still around after all these years. It really is hysterical. The audience will have to listen closely to catch all the nuances.”

Schlientz is a veteran actor at The Lantern. He works part time for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in the Standardized Patient Program, in which he portrays patients with certain symptoms or illnesses so medical students can “practice” their skills. He is also awaiting the release of an Arkansas-produced film, Antiquities, in which he has a small role.

• Shane Atkinson of Morrilton portrays Lane, Algernon’s manservant.

“I’m Algernon’s disgruntled butler,” Atkinson said, laughing. “I’m only in the first act. I have only a few lines. I am very droll.

“I’m also the stage manager and the grammarian. I try to make sure the actors say Wilde’s words exactly as he wrote them.”

Atkinson is a member of the CCAA board of directors and serves as the facilities manager at The Lantern. He is also a veteran actor of community theater in Morrilton and Conway.

• Stephen Perry of Little Rock plays Merriman, the butler at the Manor House, Jack’s estate in the country. Perry is making his debut at The Lantern. He is also helping with set design and construction.

An actor known as “Actor X” will appear as Lady Brackwell.

“We want this character to be a surprise in the show,” Bane said.

Other members of the crew are Alisa Harral of Enola, production assistant; Brent

Wilson of Quitman, assistant stage manager; Josh Anderson of Little Rock, light design; Heather

Hooten of Morrilton, dramaturge; and Sarah Rawlinson of Conway, prop master.

Patrons have a choice of times to see The Importance of Being Earnest. Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and again July 27, 28 and 29, and at 2:30 p.m. July 23 and July 30.

Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online at thelanterntheatre.com or conwayarts.org, or by emailing info@thelanterntheatre.com.

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