A gay ol’ time with Wilde’s ‘Woman’

In contrast to the play itself, the Yale Repertory Theater’s production of “A Woman of No Importance” is firmly satisfactory — nothing to complain about, but nothing spectacular either. Directed by Yale School of Drama Dean James Bundy, the external trappings of the play seem designed mainly to not distract from its content. The sets are simple and elegant, with a few added details like patterned wallpaper or hanging portraits but not much else of note; the costumes are also exactly the sort of period suits and gowns one would expect.

And the acting is about equally noteworthy. Despite a few impressive performances from the men in the cast — Bryce Pinkham DRA ’08 as well-meaning Gerald Arbuthnot and Geordie Johnson as the deliciously immoral Lord Illingworth — the cast is mostly decent. There are also some disappointments, including a rather stiff portrayal of the young American visitor Hester Worsley by Erica Sullivan DRA ’09.

Nonetheless, the emotional resonance of the play more than makes up for a few acting inadequacies. Though still a comedy, “A Woman of No Importance” is far more serious than what audiences might expect, especially after seeing the Dramat’s hilarious production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” in February. Though Wilde certainly throws in a healthy dose of wit — an old dowager muses, “I believe he said her family was too large. Or was it her feet?” — most of this play is devoted to a rather serious examination of the complications and hypocrisies of upper-class British morality.

In the aftermath of Client 9, Wilde’s century-old message about the different effects of scandal on men and women has become unexpectedly timely. The play raises the issue of who is punished for the “sin” of premarital sex, pointing out that in turn-of-the-century British society it is the women who must bear the shameful burden while the men are free to return to society as they please.

Wilde acknowledges that this is a complicated issue, but seems to conclude that men and women should bear equal blame for their wrongdoing and that any child born from a forbidden union ought to be regarded as innocent. As obvious as this may sound, such a view completely contradicted the societal norm at the time, and the play vividly portrays the strong feelings that are attached to the question. In particular, it addresses the difficulties that arise when one’s moral values are contradicted by one’s feelings for another person.

The gravity of this topic, as well as its explicitly sexual nature, is probably one reason why “Woman” is less widely performed than “Earnest.” In the final scene, a slap narrowly prevents one character from saying (presumably) the word “whore.” But the “Earnest” is simply a stronger dramatic work. “Woman” is less tightly constructed, and the dialogue slightly less convincing; a few of the longer monologues start to become overly repetitive or absurdly flowery, or both. When Mrs. Arbuthnot exclaims in all seriousness, “Nothing can heal her! No anodyne can give her sleep! No poppies forgetfulness! She is lost! She is a lost soul,” it is difficult not to roll one’s eyes.

But though it may drag occasionally, the play still shines in its discussion of moral complications. Though it ends in deference to what most of us would consider order and justice, some of its most appealing characters are outspoken opponents of traditional morality throughout the play, leaving a pleasant aftertaste of doubt after the apparently happy resolution. In fact, considering that two years after this play’s debut Wilde was thrown into prison for homosexuality, it seems likely that Wilde’s own conflicting opinions about morality are expressed through his characters, from the unapologetically scandalous Lord Illingworth to the firmly Puritanical Hester Worsley. The play thus provides a fascinating window not only into Victorian British society, but perhaps into Wilde’s feelings about his own personal life.

“A Woman of No Importance” may not provide any great emotional or theatrical thrills, but it is a satisfyingly thought-provoking evening of theater.

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