Stanford’s ‘Earnest’ a polished gem

The incomparable wit of Oscar Wilde takes center stage in Stanford Summer Theater’s production of his ever-popular “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Wilde delighted in skewering English society with one bon mot after another.

Most ably directed by Lynne Soffer, a veteran Bay Area actress who does double duty as dialect coach, this polished gem features Stanford theater students as four would-be lovers and four more experienced actors as their elders.

Taking place in 1895, the play features Austin Caldwell as Algernon Moncrieff, a dapper bachelor who lives in theLondonflat where the first act is set. His friend, Jack Worthing (David Raymond), is in love with Algerenon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Ruth Marks). When inLondon, Jack calls himself Earnest, but he goes by Jack at his manor house in the country. Gwendolen wants to marry him because she’s always wanted to be with an Earnest. Of course, there is no Earnest.

Another obstacle is Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell (the imperious, formidable Courtney Walsh), who opposes the marriage because Earnest (actually Jack) apparently is an orphan.

Jack’s pert ward, Cecily Cardew (Jessica Waldman) lives in his manor house. She believes that when Jack goes toLondon, he’s trying to get his brother, Earnest, out of scrapes.

When Algernon hears about Cecily, he goes to Jack’s home pretending to be Earnest. It’s love at first sight between him and Cecily until Jack shows up in mourning for the death of Earnest. Much confusion ensues, but eventually everything works out to everyone’s satisfaction.

Besides Lady Bracknell, the older generation includes Miss Prism (Kay Kostopoulos), Cecily’s governess and tutor; and the Rev. Canon Chasyble (Marty Pistone). Don DeMico plays both Lane, Algernon’s manservant, and Merriman, Jack’s butler, with unflappable dignity despite all the goings-on.

Besides the actors’ skill, this production is notable for outstanding production values, starting with Erik Flatmo’s set design, which is especially stunning for Algernon’s flat with its elaborate Chinese motifs. Dressed like servants, a three-person student stage crew smoothly accomplishes set changes during the two intermissions.

Connie Strayer’s costume designs are elegant for all of the women and the two younger men. The hats for Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen are works of art in themselves. Lighting is by Michael Ramsaur and sound by Michael St. Clair.

“”The Importance of Being Earnest” is part of Stanford Summer Theater’s 15th season, whose theme is “He’s Funny That Way: Wilde and Beckett.” The Samuel Beckett offering is “Happy Days,” which runs Aug. 15 to 25 in Stanford’s Nitery Theater.The season also includes free film comedies and a symposium. A continuing studies course began earlier in the summer.

For information and tickets, call (650) 725-5838 or visit http://sst.stanford.edu