When Oscar Wilde wrote A Woman of No Importance back in 1893, he scrutinized and satirized the ethics of a Victorian English society that was all too eager to bring down its fellows. In Wilde's play, Hester Worsley was British high society until she had an affair that begat a bastard child. Hence, she was scorned, dismissed as a woman of no importance. Worsley ultimately left for America — that land with, supposedly, a less rigid sense of morality.
Switch continents and fast-forward more than a century and little has changed. Just switch issues and roles. Local director Mike McGettigan agrees: He sees the same values in contemporary society that Wilde placed on his characters. Change the issue from single motherhood to gayness and we see Wilde's 115-year-old classic reborn as A Man of No Importance for the local stage.
"It's taking place within this political framework and in society today — that same scorn placed on people for being gay," McGettigan says. "But not just gay, but being poor or of a different race. [This is] used as a tool to sort of crush people. And we're all affected by that."
McGettigan, the 33-year-old playwright-director of 2003's locally popular satire Space Fuckers and a multiple-Between the Lines award winner, is perhaps best-known for his madcap, over-the-top plays that use farce to amuse area audiences. But he takes a more serious tack by updating this classic play, moving it from the judgmental society of London parlors to a big-city Georgia mayor's office.
The show's "man of no importance" is Mr. Arbuthnot, whose past comes back to haunt him in the hardly private arena of big-city politics, where he's outed as a gay man.
McGettigan uses a glib, darkly witty style to bemoan stiff mores — in this way it's a kind of love letter to Wilde. Much of Wilde's original script is intact, McGettigan says, simply updated where appropriate but retaining the play's essential message, which is summed up in the play:
"You get shut out from your society, the gentle and the good," says a Wilde character in the original play. "You laugh at the simple and the pure. With all your pomp and wealth you don't know how to live. You love the beauty that you can destroy, but of the unseen beauty of a higher life, you know nothing. You have lost life's secret."
And that secret, to McGettigan, is about the embrace of life and of people — all people. —Matt Fortuna
Opens Feb. 22 and runs until March 15 at Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff, Hamtramck; 313-365-4948 or planetant.com for info.