Actor Craig Johnson‘s layered, knowing, subtle and intelligent portrayal of Oscar Wilde is by far the best reason to see Gross Indecency: The Three Trials Of Oscar Wilde (Walking Shadow performing at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, through May 4). Gross Indecency dramatizes the (successful; I don’t think I’m revealing too much here) efforts of the Puritanical powers-that-were in Victorian England to persecute Wilde for his “vile” homosexuality.
Johnson avoids the familiar traps: he refuses to rely on Wilde the fey master of the aphorism, to make Wilde the very model of a modern homosexual, to give us Wilde the ineffable wit. Johnson plays these, yes, but they don’t dominate (if they did the performance would grow quickly tiresome).
Rather, Johnson’s Wilde faces his homophobic tormentors calmly, emphasizing his passionate reverence for Art, for Beauty. His presence is beautifully understated. Rarely does he “act out.” For this Wilde, “the love that dare not speak its name” is the platonic affection of an older man for a younger – and Johnson/Wilde’s impassioned defense of this love, taken directly from the trial, thrills.
But was Wilde’s love for the swaggeringly self-centered Lord Douglas (aka “Bosie”, a lovely turn by actor Casey Hoekstra) really so sexless? Moisés Kaufman‘s play is at its best when it questions Wilde’s motives. Was he really such an apostle of Art? Was he lying when he claimed that he committed no acts of “gross indecency” with sexy and irascible young men testifying against him? Did he allow Bosie to manipulate him into the self-destructive lawsuit? If so, why? Why didn’t he escape to France when it became clear he would lose? Was Wilde homosexual? Did he identify as “gay?” We cannot, at this distance, definitively answer these questions, but in Gross Indecency Kaufman asks them forcefully.
Director Amy Rummenie grasps the need to keep Wilde contained and dignified and so creates a production in which characters swirl, and grab our attention, stepping forward to perform newspaper articles, selections from diaries, reviews, etc. She builds an energized, entrancing production. She also draws uniformly excellent performances from her cast; too many to mention in this short review. Still, I must praise Grant Sorenson‘s by turns sulky, sour and surly portrayals; and Jim Pounds‘s calm yet forceful work as Clarke; James Tucker as the spittingly angry Queensberry.
Gross Indecency is not a perfect play. It is long for one thing, and I felt frustration flow through the audience when it became clear that there would be a third trial. The play is predictable and often repetitive, the story oft-told. Moreover, it frequently depends on moral smugness, asking us to look down our 21st century noses at the misguided characters, a manipulation I resented. Still, Kaufman often – but not always – avoids these pitfalls via the intelligence and energy of his playwriting.
And the terrific-ness of the production and, especially, Craig Johnson’s rich performance easily moots these reservations and makes Gross Indecency an eminently seeable play.
Next up at Walking Shadow: Cabal, summer 2013, venue TBA.
For more information about John Olive, please visit his (updated) website.