Pittsburgh Public Theater revives classic on stage

Courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater | (Left to right) Alex Manalo, David Ryan Smith, Veronica del Cerro and Dylan Marquis Meyers used American accents in the production to better connect with audiences.

Hannah Peters | Staff Writer

For many, “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde is a dated piece of theatrical work that you may only hear of in passing. Director Jenny Koons has taken steps to change that.

Pittsburgh received its first glimpse of this on March 27, when the first preview of this production hit the stage at the Downtown O’Reilly Theater. A product of the Pittsburgh Public Theater (PPT) and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, this play is directed and adapted by Koons and will run until April 14.

First performed in 1895 London, the story is set in Victorian era England against the backdrop of two contrasting environments: the city of London – referred to as the ‘town’ – and the ‘country,’ or Hertfordshire, the rural countryside not far from England’s capital.

Similarly, the play follows John Worthing who leads two lives, one in town where he is known as “Earnest” and the other in the country where he is called “John.” His intention is to marry Gwendolyn from town, daughter of Lady Bracknell and cousin of friend Algernon, and through these interactions and his opposing identities, the story unfolds.

Described as “a satirical masterpiece of wit and wisdom” by the PPT website, this play uses humor to touch on themes of society, etiquette, identity, desire and love. Using a combination of local Pittsburgh and visiting talent, this performance features a small seven-member cast.

David Ryan Smith, actor and NYU professor, plays the commanding and ruthless-but-proper character of Lady Bracknell. Smith was thought of specifically for the role by Koons, who had worked with him in previous productions.

Bringing a particularly forceful energy to the story, Smith’s portrayal of Lady Bracknell captivated audience members, especially the likes of regular theatergoer Rae Groy.

“I really liked the character of the mother. All the actors did a good job, but that person was particularly powerful,” Groy said.

Smith explained that part of the process in adapting this production involved trimming the play of some outdated references so that they could uphold the spine of the story.

“Jenny did a great job of not really changing words, but cutting some. There’s a lot of really contemporary 1895 English references that a modern audience I think would struggle with – and she wanted to really make a version of the play that was just accessible to a contemporary audience,” Smith said.

One of these changes was the choice for the actors to not use accents, something that typically is done for this play.

Local actress Alex Manalo portrayed Cecily, Worthing’s young ward who resides in his country home. She said that language and the way in which it is spoken in a play has a major impact on the audience’s experience, so foregoing original dialects was helpful to the adaptation.

“After you see the show, no one’s like, ‘I wish you did those dialects,’ because she took out a lot of the references to London,” Manalo said. “There’s so many themes and things that people can relate to that if you pinpoint it to – this is a play that takes place in Europe – sometimes that’s where people feel like this is above us.”

Manalo explained that Koons’ process in adapting this play also involved a lot of collaboration. Koons hosted open rehearsals before the opening of the show so that students and the general public could give feedback on the performance.

“She’s really big into collaborating. Her thing is we shouldn’t be gatekeeping the rehearsal process,” Manalo said. “Hearing outside voices and getting other people inside the rehearsal space over those three weeks was really cool and different to me.”

Koons also recruited another colleague, Emmy award-winner Jason Adrizzone-West, to be the ​​scenic designer for this production. Previously working on sets for artists such as Beyonce, Adele, The Weeknd and Lana Del Ray, Ardizzone-West said that Koons was a major reason he got involved with this production.

“I just really love the way she approaches theater [with] a fresh perspective [and by] questioning the kind of expectations and norms of traditional Western theater,” said Adrizzone-West.

Adding other elements to the performance, like short interludes featuring readings from real etiquette books from the Victorian era, Koons adapted a century old story into something grounded, humorous and engaging.

“It feels amazing to come back to a comedy, especially at a time when there are so many serious issues that we are all grappling with,” Koons said in a news release. “Despite how our senses of humor have changed culturally, this humor from the 1800s is still so funny, even now.”