Guthrie's "The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde" tells a sickening but fascinating tale
June 14, 2008 - 03:51.
Happy Fathers’ Day! Any father attending The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde at the Guthrie may feel that he has done a wonderful job in comparison to Oscar Wilde. (Who knew the famously gay Irishman had kids? All we talked about in English Lit was his work: The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere’s Fan….)
A gifted and renowned poet, author and playwright, Oscar Wilde (Matthew Greer) married a lady, as 19th Century gentlemen were expected to do, and then took pouty playboy Lord Alfred Douglas (Brandon Weinbrenner) as his lover. His dalliances with other gay and bisexual men, as well as drinking and indiscriminate spending, earned Wilde an unholy reputation as well as a prison sentence.
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As Constance Lloyd Wilde (Sarah Agnew) unravels the mystery of her husband’s frequent absences from their home, we see her claiming her own strength as a provider for herself and two children. But she is carrying a terrible secret that keeps her entwined with her neglectful husband and nearly drives her mad. The self-absorbed Oscar, meanwhile, never is able to give himself fully to one choice of a partner, and loses both in the end.
This play is a phenomenal production in its every aspect: script, acting and vocal talent, puppetry, music, costuming, set design, lighting, and venue. Shadowy figures crouch and whirl amidst the three main characters, representing the forces that drew them together—wit, intellect, sexual attraction, social mores and shared progeny—as well as the desires, circumstances and betrayals that tore them asunder.
“A father’s job is to make childhood possible—for as long as possible.”
Several times during both acts, my companion, Karl, and I turned to each other and simultaneously sucked in our breath or uttered, “Wow…!” There is a scene in which Oscar Wilde’s character transforms into the judge who condemns Wilde to prison amidst jeering by jurors that are cleverly-crafted marionettes. Any dad who likes to build stuff will marvel at the construction of that set. (Gift idea: a couple of new tools and a copy of the book Measure Twice, Cut Once.)
Between Constance and Oscar Wilde, the roles of father, lover and husband become the rope in a game of tug-of-war. “The problem with my marriage is that my wife understands me,” quips Oscar.
While there are plenty of such lines to make you laugh, the play is centered on the painful double entendre of Constance’s “fall”: a physical plunge down a stairway in the midst of depression echoes her personal experience of falling from grace because of incest. I think that’s why she never divorced her husband even though she was humiliated by him; today’s psychotherapists would say she was “working out her relationship with her father” by marrying a man focused only on himself and his own pleasure.
As if the story itself weren’t wrenching enough, the voices onstage intoning Mozart’s Requiem, along with live and recorded music by Bach, Schumann, Chopin and other classical composers, induce both compassion and chills.
Not every play set in past centuries can be capable of engaging a contemporary audience. The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde does so triumphantly. Themes of truth, justice, love, desire, selfishness and self-preservation are timeless, and this play explores these subjects deeply, leaving no observer untouched.
The most heartbreaking line, Karl and I agreed, came from the broken but liberated Constance, rejecting Oscar’s pleas to see his sons before he dies, on the basis that he never really has been a father. “A father’s job is to make childhood possible—for as long as possible,” she hisses, outing the depth of her rage at the failures of both her children’s father and her own.
The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde runs through July 11 on the McGuire Proscenium Stage. For more information and tickets, visit www.guthrietheater.org or call the box office at 612-377-2224.