An old church facility might not be the place you most expect to see a comedy by Oscar Wilde, but there we are: welcome to West Tulsa. More specifically, welcome to Theatre West, a new nonprofit community theatre initiative starting up in a long-underserved area of the city. Their cavernous building, most recently a daycare center but long empty, is in the very early stages of renovation. As luck would have it, it came with a stage already installed—one that the troupe is using to fine effect in a rousing production of The Importance of Being Earnest that plays through this weekend.
“Rousing” is what’s called for in this 1895 farce, subtitled “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.” It’s a Wildean masterclass in skewering the aristocracy, with special attention to the vanity, pretension, self-centeredness, hypocrisy, and assorted other qualities that made the upper classes of Wilde’s day so essential to send up. There’s no one onstage going to space in a self-funded rocket, and the names are Algernon and Gwendolen instead of, say, Elon and Jeff, but you don’t even have to draw contemporary parallels to enjoy this tasty roast. The plot is, to put it mildly, nuts: two layabout friends concoct a plan to win the hearts of two women, both of whom declare that they will marry no man whose name is not Earnest. Needless to say, neither of these fellows’ is—but they’ve got no qualms about leading double lives. For a while, anyway. Entanglements and surprises ensue that are worthy of “Succession” (though much, much funnier). And the repartée is unmatched. (“If I am occasionally a little over-dressed,” says Algernon, “I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated.”)
For first-time director Caleb Vaughn, who moved to Tulsa in 2016 to study musical theatre at ORU and has acted in community shows in Broken Arrow, Sapulpa, and Muskogee, the chance to put up this show is a dream come true. He’s risen to the challenge, achieving brisk and energetic pacing in this 2.5-hour production that features some exquisite hand-sewn period dresses, vests, and headpieces made by veteran costumer Shari Webster and a strong cast of local actors (notably Wesley Houts, whose Jack Worthing—the character played by Colin Firth in the 2002 film version of the play—is full of subtle gradations of humanity, even as he squirms in dismayed agony at the mess he and his friend have gotten themselves into).
“I’ve heard nothing but positive response to the show,” Vaughn said, “which has been incredibly encouraging and makes this all worth it. Everyone that we have talked to about the theatre itself is very excited about there being another performance venue in the Tulsa area. There are never too many places or opportunities to perform. I hope that this place will be a place of quality theatre in an area of town where that doesn’t quite exist. And that it will be a safe haven for performers, both seasoned and not, to do what they love. I certainly hope that more artists will continue to get involved here.”
Theatre West joins an ecosystem of performing arts in Tulsa that’s diverse and determined. (Here’s a guide to local theatre to help get you oriented.) From World Stage Theatre Company, now headquartered in Crosbie Heights, to the innovative Heller Theatre Company (with its new Playwrights Lab of Tulsa, or PLOT), to heavyweight Theatre Tulsa and more, plays and musicals and original work are hopping after two long years of on-again, off-again due to Covid.
Theatre West president Catherine Hall has worked in children’s theatre for decades, including at the Spotlight on Riverside, and is a longtime West Tulsa resident. (By day, she’s a hospice chaplain.) With all the development in the area—from the WOMPA outpost to Edison Studios to entrepreneurial hubs like the Dillon/Rose studio, in addition to existing landmarks like Gilcrease Museum, Waterworks, and the Central High School arts programs—she sees an opportunity to extend participation in theatre to a community for whom it’s been insufficiently accessible.
“I don’t like to see theatre as a competition,” Hall explained. “It’s about giving more opportunities. I’ve always dreamed about this part of town changing. I want to be a light in the community. I would love to have this as a kind of hub where kids from the neighborhood can come after school and have theatre classes. We want to give people opportunities who don't think they belong in theatre.” She’s also keen to offer locals who might not be into acting or directing the chance to learn technical theatre skills like costuming, stage management, and design.
Ultimately, more theatre is good for everyone—especially theatre this fun. After Earnest closes, Theatre West will host a Valentine’s Day dinner/fundraiser on February 4th and 5th, and they’re planning more shows throughout the year. Their building might not be as grand as the PAC, but the energy in the room as these actors take us into another world is warm, inviting, and full of promise.
“The Importance of Being Earnest”
January 14-15 (7:30pm) and January 16 (2pm)
4501 W. Edison St.
Tickets at the door or by calling 918-417-0721 ($12 for adults, $8 for kids)
Masks are requested and will be available at the door
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