You must stop “Bunburying” and go see the latest from Portland Stage.

The term, a creation of playwright Oscar Wilde, is an important element in his play “The Importance of Being Earnest.” It refers to the practice of avoiding some activity by using a false excuse, such as the need to care for a sick friend. But there are no excuses needed for this welcome return of a classic presented by the venerable theater company in Portland.

Incisively witty and thoroughly entertaining, the play, and particularly its creator, were considered quite scandalous at the time. Both despite and because of that, it has become a canonical work and a must-see when done as well as this.

Director Christopher Grabowski and staff have mounted an impressive production with period costumes and moveable sets that fill three acts. Giving weight to both the high and low comedic elements within the play, Grabowski has encouraged some rather broad physical comedy from the cast to produce lots of laughs from the action as well as the words.

The play concerns the romantic pursuits of two men with marginal membership in a fading British upper class. Both admit to the other that they maintain fictions in order to avoid the more restrictive expectations of their station in an often ridiculously rigid late-Victorian society.

Tonya Ingerson, Allie Freed, Ross Cowan and Max Samuels.

Jack has created a “brother,” whose identity he assumes when convenient as he moves between city and country. His friend Algernon has his “Bunbury,” an imaginary friend he must visit whenever some social obligation threatens to bore him to death. Their methods nearly trip them up as they romance two flighty but socially protected young women.

The 1894 play’s message may be somewhat dated, but perhaps not as much as might be thought.

The cast includes an appealing mix of local actors and guests from away. Ross Cowan plays the irreverent Algernon, always ready with a bit of fractured wisdom for his friend Jack, played by Max Samuels, to try to digest. The two work well together, with Cowan’s dandy delighting in setting off Samuels’s excitable gentleman.

The love interests are played by Allie Freed, as a ditsy but determined Gwendolyn, and Tonya Ingerson, who gives her young Cecily over to attempts at managing the fierce competition between her mind and her emotions. The two interacting with each other match the humor of the moments between the men. When the four get together, the laughs multiply.

Elizabeth West and Susan Knight put starch into their Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism, respectively. Victorian norms bend and break along with financial and emotional barriers as their true selves emerge.

Local regular Christopher Holt adds comedic bewilderment to his Reverend Chasuble while Grace Bauer and Al D’Andrea, as servants, provide wry commentary on their superiors’ foibles. Well executed and a perfect choice for the season, this production reconfirms the importance of bringing classic plays back to local stages.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

filed under: