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Lean Ensemble Theater Takes a Walk on the Wilde Side

Costume designer Sarah McCaroll helps transform Mimi Wyche into Lady Bracknell in Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of Oscar Wilde’s "The Importance of Being Earnest."
Costume designer Sarah McCaroll helps transform Mimi Wyche into Lady Bracknell in Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of Oscar Wilde’s "The Importance of Being Earnest."

Wielding her imperious manner like a cudgel, Lady Augusta Bracknell rushes full tilt onto the stage, rearranging molecules, forcing conversations-in- progress, to pitch, shift and coalesce around her. Making pronouncements in bold letters, she is a force of nature, intent on maintaining propriety.

In her towering wig, this grand dame is the ultimate disrupter of anyone who dares challenge her worldview. You can’t ignore or escape her as the young gentlemen who scheme and plot to jury-rig workarounds to their problems in this rigidly ordered universe discover.

Veteran actress, playwright and Greenville native Mimi Wyche embodies this veritable whirlwind in Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

The madcap plot revolves around two young men in love with two young women who profess they will only marry gentlemen named Ernest, presumably because men thusly named will be of guaranteed good character. But… it’s complicated… Alas, neither man carries the desired appellation. What’s more it turns out that both have created double-lives to escape the rigors of Victorian society. Whenever he’s been tempted to sow wild oats, John Worthing has assumed the identity of a fictitious younger brother named, oddly enough, Ernest. Meanwhile Algernon Montcrieff, when faced with unwanted obligations, “finds himself obliged” to go off and visit Bunbury, his bogus sickly friend.

Now as deceptions tumble around her and the characters joust with wit and intrigue, the beleaguered Lady Bracknell struggles to tame the mayhem. Below are a few of Mimi Wyche’s thoughts on becoming Lady Bracknell:

You’re a classically trained opera singer and have a résumé packed with musical roles in in classics like “La Boheme” and “La Traviata” as well as on Broadway in “Cats.” Yet a big chunk of your recent work is in plays.

I believe that training classically in any realm of the arts is the best way to get a foundation. It allows me vocally to do all kinds of things because if I have to scream on stage or do wacky singing I know how to breathe and I avoid a lot of pitfalls that way. Oscar Wilde’s text in “Earnest” is very musical and Lady Bracknell has these great operatic swoops. She’s extreme in personality and her sense of power so she takes up a tremendous amount of space—not just physically but in her own persona. Every time she makes an entrance or exit, it’s a grand aria in itself and you can just hear “the drum roll.”

How you transform yourself into this towering figure?

Lady Bracknell’s physicality is important so I went out and bought a corset and I found these little lace gloves on EBay. Then when I was working on the lines, I went walking around the room in them, just feeling very bound like that––it really makes a difference in how you carry yourself.

You grew up in Greenville (to parents who were instrumental in the city’s recent Renaissance, I might add) and have a lovely South Carolina accent. How do you transform your voice into that of a prim and proper Victorian lady?

I think in this play it’s all about language and the way that the upper classes in Victorian Society express themselves. I work very hard on getting the accent right, watching as many Victorian movies as I can. Accents differ depending upon the time and place the language was spoken so I’ve worked with a dialect coach to make sure that I was getting the right era.

Oscar Wilde wrote “The Importance of Being Earnest” in 1894. How does it speak to today’s audiences?

It sparkles with relevance. We are still a society divided into a class system — upper, middle, lower — whether we want to think so or not. Lady Bracknell has a sense of absolute correctness. She feels she is right, she knows the rules, and there’s no question or consideration that there’s another way of looking at things. And that’s certainly true of our culture right now — on all sides. We have extremes and an inflexibility. Part of Wilde’s message is not only a satire on class rules and morals but on hypocrisy which I think we find everywhere today.

What drives Lady Bracknell’s strict social code?

She was not born in upper class society, she worked her way up and married up so she was clever to get where she is. There’s a sense in her which is not uncommon that when you move up in society, you don’t want to go back to where you were. It’s threatening. The more you can build yourself up and say now you’re in the upper class, the more you don’t want to talk to the lower class because “I came from that and I don’t want to go back there.” That contributes to her rigidity. She’s afraid that she or her daughter or nephew will tumble to the lower class and she’s been there and knows how difficult it is get out of there — and she’s not going back.

After you’ve inhabited this imposing creature, how do you go back to real life at the end of the night?

I love to go out in the world and be with people but after a show I have to crawl back in my cave and be by myself or I wear out. I have to say to myself, “Alright I’ve been out there and been an extrovert, now I go back to being my introvert self.”

And after the show closes?

After a show is over there’s a period of grieving to say goodbye to a character and hopefully there’s another one that I’m moving on to. What’s amazing is that when a show is over it seems like that within three hours all the lines leave my head. But in this case, with Lady Bracknell who has such memorable ones, probably more will stay.

And now for some words of wisdom from Lady Bracknell:

▪ To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

▪ To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.

▪ Indeed, no woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating.

If you go

▪ What: Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest”

▪ When: April 26-28 and May 3-5 at 7:30 PM. Sunday matinees April 29 and May 6 at 2 PM.

▪ Where: HHPS Main Street Theatre, 3000 Main Street, Hilton Head Island

▪ Also: Talkbacks following each performance

▪ Tickets: $40 evening performances; $35 matinees; $15 students/active military. Group and discount rates available.

▪ Details: www.leanensemble.org or call 843.715.6676.