November 2015

A Case of Mistaken Identity and a Comedy of Errors:The Importance of Being Earnest

Author: Kitty Bartell | Photographer: 33 Park Photography

Growth… it happens whether we like it or not. A hard lesson learned is described as a growth experience. A growth spurt makes it difficult to keep children in well-fitting shoes. Learning to sit still in a classroom when the playground is calling requires emotional growth for a feisty fifth grader. Though often railing against it, human beings are inspired by growth, perpetually in awe of Mother Nature, who most-effortlessly orchestrates growth among her subjects. A seed planted in fertile soil, watered faithfully, and exposed to doses of warm sunshine will experience it. Well-fed baby birds will, too, ultimately leaving the nest. And somehow, weeds experience growth under the most improbably stressful circumstances, fighting for their place in the sun despite efforts to eradicate.

Welcome or not, easy or difficult, probable or improbable, growth is an opportunity that Peggy Trecker White takes seriously in her role as director of performing arts at Hilton Head Preparatory School on Hilton Head Island. The school’s fall production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, is providing abundant opportunities for growth; and much like Mother Nature’s sprouts, White’s subjects are taking to it like ducklings to water.

Set in Victorian London and the surrounding countryside, at a time when the social rules regarding manners and posture and relationships and status were weighty responsibilities, The Importance of Being Earnest is a satire-filled farce, brimming with favorable conditions for the school’s young actors to grow in craft and confidence.

“Casting happened at the very end of August, and we started rehearsals right after Labor Day,” White said. “This particular show, though it is a comedy, has language that is heightened because it was written in 1895. What is really fun is for the students to read the text, and then look at me like I’m crazy. They usually do not understand the joke at the first cold reading. Then, when we get working on the scenes, they’re paying more attention to the language and the behavior of the characters and the manners of the characters, because it’s really a comedy of manners and a comedy of behaviors,” she continued. “So once they understand that, and they start working the scene, character to character, instead of paying attention to something that feels foreign, they start making themselves laugh and really getting into it; it comes alive. To watch them be suspicious and then find the joke is great, and that’s the way in—the way to do satire.”

And voila! Growth occurs. “One student said, ‘You’re really raising the bar.’ That’s my job,” White said.

“I knew when I was a freshman in high school, that’s what I wanted to go to college for. I never thought about doing anything else, ever,” White said of her pursuit of all things theatrical. Now in her third year at Hilton Head Prep, she brings with her a stellar academic and stage résumé, including a bachelor of fine arts in musical theatre from the University of Michigan, a master of fine arts in acting from the American Repertory Theatre and Moscow Art Theatre at Harvard University, directing and acting credentials from Interlochen Arts Camp (where her spark for teaching really came to life), along with numerous acting, directing, and producing credits, including touring on-stage in Broadway’s Miss Saigon. “They definitely know I’m passionate,” White said, of her students and colleagues at Hilton Head Prep.

Part of raising the bar and promoting growth includes White’s conscious efforts to introduce students to regular stage plays—an effort supported by the school’s faculty, including Dr. Michael Bassett, who encouraged the selection of Earnest and included it in his English department curriculum. “Prep has always been known for really lively entertaining musical theater, and I hope that I’m continuing that tradition,” White said. “I think I have also strayed a little bit in trying to do the same thing with straight plays. There’s this crazy idea that plays aren’t as entertaining or as funny, and I think all that is, is just not having experience. I think we’re starting a great tradition. Last year the whole school went to see To Kill a Mockingbird. This year the whole school is going to see Inherit the Wind, and a huge group is going to see The Glass Menagerie.”

The hilarity of Earnest revolves around the story of two buddies, Jack, a.k.a. Ernest, and Algernon, two lovely ladies, Gwendolen and Cecily, a domineering matriarch, a reverend, a country butler, a city butler, and a governess. The play has a relatively small cast, offering White the opportunity to double cast some of the roles, alternating performances over the course of three evenings and one matinee. Jack (Ernest) is played by Zach June and Anita Uwadia; Jack Dextraze and Avery Campbell are playing Algenon; cast as Gwendolen are Kate Herman and Ava Nixon, who are also sharing the role of Miss Prism; Cecily is played by Julia Gigante and Serina Xiong; Dr. Chasuble, the country reverend, is played by Jackson Puckey; cast as Lane, the London butler is Logan Blair; Frank Milbourn is playing Merriman the country butler; and Lady Bracknell the matriarch, a role made famous by Dame Judi Dench, is played by Shannon Hegarty.

Thrilled with the growth opportunities at Hilton Head Prep, White sees nearly endless possibilities. “The small class sizes feed into theater training. We talk about student differentiation in this school, and I think that’s inherent in the arts – that’s always been the case. You see a little twinkle and know there’s something there,”—something to feed, to nurture, and to watch grow, and leave the nest a bit better for it. 

Dates and show times for The Importance of Being Earnest at Hilton Head Prep’s Main Street Theatre are November 12, 13, and 14 at 7:30 p.m. and November 15 at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the door or online at hhprep.org.

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