A Woman of No Importance

"A Woman of No Importance," at Yale Repertory Theatre
By Irene Backalenick

Could Oscar Wilde have written this play? Such is the initial thought upon seeing "A Woman of No
Importance," now on the Yale Rep stage. Sentimentality and melodrama abound, while Wilde's noted
witticisms take second billing. But when one learns that the play was written in 1893, two years prior to
Wilde's masterpiece, "The Importance of Being Earnest," this piece takes its place in the chronology.
Wilde was still serving his apprenticeship, as it were.
The failings of this early piece lie in its faulty structure, its schizophrenic nature. Wilde has created two
plays-the first half a witty, stinging satire, the second an unrelieved melodrama, complete with a villain
and a heroine metaphorically tied to the railroad tracks. Yet "A Woman of No Importance" offers signs of
Wilde's genius. His distinctive style comes through in the opening act, with a devastating take on the
British aristocracy. His Victorian ladies and gentlemen are either idiotic or amoral, depending on their
level of intelligence. And every one speaks of "nowadays," as if it were the ultimate, final moment in
history-which actually, viewed from the twenty-first century, was a long time ago.
Of course one delights in Wilde's wit, with such typical comments: "In my young days," says Lady
Caroline, "one never met anyone in society who worked for their living. It was not considered the thing."
And later, "I am not at all in favour of amusements for the poor, Jane. Blankets and coals are sufficient."
Or Lord Illingworth, a spokesman for Wilde himself: "it is perfectly monstrous the way people go about,
nowadays, saying things against one behind one's back that are absolutely and entirely true."
As to plot, Lord Illingworth, a dashing womanizer about to become an ambassador, hires a lad to be his
secretary. The young man's mother, Mrs. Arbuthnot, objects strenuously. It turns out that Illingworth was
the very man who seduced, impregnated, and abandoned her twenty years earlier. Against the backdrop
of an English country party, the two parents struggle for control.
This current "Woman of No Importance" is a handsome but static production. Under direction of James
Bundy (Yale Rep's Artistic Director), lines are clearly-spoken and costuming is elegant. But characters,
enjoying the charms of Lady Hunstanton's estate, sit in a straight line while delivering their chatter and
sipping tea-more often like a staged reading than a full production. But the action picks up in the second
act, thanks to both play and production. It is here that witticisms fall away, and the life-and-death
struggle ensues. It is also a time, alas, when all that makes Oscar Wilde so memorable disappears.
Sentimentality and the high moral road prevail over stinging wit.
Bundy's cast, however, creates a first-rate ensemble. Topping the list are Geordie Johnson as the
decadent Lord Illingworth and Kate Forbes as the victimized Mrs. Arbuthnot. Among the ladies, Rene
Augesen and Patricia Kilgarriff carry their lines and costumes beautifully, and Terence Rigby, as the
Archdeacon, creates a delightful cameo.
All told, one wishes that a better-and better-known-Wildean piece had been the Yale Rep choice. Dare
we say that this one is a play of no importance?
This review originally appeared in the CT Post.

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