Nick Temple somehow managed to “avoid” Oscar Wilde in high school and college. Not that it was deliberate; he simply had not encountered the author’s famous novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” or best-known play, “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
All Temple knew was that “Earnest” was a comedy until he and his family caught a production at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore.
“It was hilarious,” he said. “One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on stage.”
“The Importance of Being Earnest” follows two young men who assume double lives to avoid social obligations and boost their love lives (sort of). This happens even as they begin to fall in love, sincerely, with two proper women.
When Silver Spring Stage announced it was producing the Wilde comedy, Temple made up his mind to audition. He had his heart set on playing Algernon, the best friend of the protagonist, John.
“John is a straight man,” Temple said. “Algernon has a lot more inherent absurdity, which I enjoy.”
On the other hand, “there’s a tendency to embrace the absurdity too much, to go over the top with a character, and Bill Hurlbut, who is directing, wants us to keep it grounded.”
It’s a play Hurlbut almost didn’t get to direct – at least not this year. “Earnest” was planned for next season, but because the theater was unable to get the rights for the play originally scheduled, the Wilde comedy was moved up.
That was serendipitous, Hurlbut pointed out. The play is a “sure-fire draw, no matter how many times it’s done.” The financial aspect is particularly significant now because last year the theater experienced flooding, and needed repairs cut into its budget. But audience familiarity with the play also can make it challenging to direct, Hurlbut said.
“There are expectations around it, and many famous lines. I told one of the actresses she’s got to speed up because the audience will be light years ahead of her (in reciting them).”
Then there are those British accents. He brought in a dialect coach to get them right.
This is the first time Emma Wesslund, who plays Gwendolen, Jack’s love interest is performing at the Stage and in the Metropolitan region altogether. Since moving to the DMV, she’s been mostly active behind the scenes, fundraising for local performing arts organizations and producing a play at the 2018 Capital Fringe Festival
“It’s been a joy to perform again,” she said, “especially in such a high-energy production with such talented folks.”
Wesslund had seen “Earnest” twice before and was hoping for the role of Gwendolen.
“I’m more her physical type, and felt I could more believably play the 20-something Gwendolen than the 18-year-old Cecily, Algernon’s love,” she said.
On the other hand, actors often like to play characters different from themselves, and Gwendolen offered that opportunity as well. “Her determination and self-assurance throughout the play was something I was incredibly drawn to and wanted a chance to engage with,” Wesslund said.
Since much of her theatrical background was rooted in Shakespeare, the heightened language was not new. Playing broad comedy has been a learning experience but a welcome challenge, she said.
While Wilde wrote “Earnest” in 1895, today’s productions are often made contemporary. That’s an approach Hurlbut disagrees with; he chose 1927, a time when the strict social norms were beginning to break down in England.
Whenever its set, he added, this play about fraught but strong women and weak men is “timeless.”
“The Importance of Being Earnest” runs May 17-June 8 at Silver Spring Stage, Woodmoor Shopping Center, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. www.ssstage.org. (301) 593-6036.