`Gross Indecency' is a well-acted play

Jim Gallagher gives powerful performance as Oscar Wilde


October 12, 2007|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Anyone who enjoys thought-provoking drama will find it in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. And those who appreciate formidable acting talent also will find it the Dignity Players' production of this play, which opened last weekend at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis.

Director Mickey Handwerger illuminates Moises Kaufman's intellectually stimulating work on the unlikely improvised minimalist theater, the eight-member all-male supporting cast does not disappoint, and lead actor Jim Gallagher gives the best performance I've ever seen on a local stage.

Dignity Players sticks to its mission of confronting social issues with this drama, a blazing attack on homophobia that is made all the more profound in this churchlike setting.

Told in the words of the people involved in the three trials of England's most prominent writer at the height of his powers, Kaufman's play offers contemporary insight into how Victorian hypocrisy led to the destruction of a flawed hero. Specifically, the drama chronicles the charges and countercharges resulting from Wilde's affair with Lord Alfred Douglas.

The first trial was a criminal libel suit brought in 1895 by Wilde against Douglas' father, the Marquess of Queensbury. He was acquitted on the basis of evidence against Wilde that he recycled to prosecute the writer for "gross indecency with male persons." The second trial ended in a hung jury with Wilde's "love that dare not speak its name" defense, prompting a third trial in which he was convicted and sentenced to two years' imprisonment at hard labor.

In Dignity's production Gallagher becomes Oscar Wilde, first appearing as an arrogant and foppish snob at the top of his game. Gallagher's Wilde is a man of towering intellect whose vision encompasses a vast knowledge and reverence for beauty and art. The actor's military posture exaggerates his imposing height of well over 6 feet. He retains this perfect posture throughout even as he starts to realize that he is helping to convict himself, especially when he flippantly denies kissing a young man by making a comment about his physical unattractiveness.

Gallagher portrays Wilde's downfall by his own rapier wit, a downfall that is all the more tragic as he is assaulted by his intellectual and moral inferiors. As his soul is battered, Gallagher's Wilde displays an unsuspected courage and protectiveness toward his loved ones in a kind of shedding of protective layers.

To say that the supporting cast is not outshone is to pay high tribute to each actor. Standout performances are given by Bryan Barrett playing the Marquess of Queensberry and counsel Mr. Gill, and Dan Kavanaugh as Wilde's counsel, Sir Edward Clarke.

Of special appeal is how Kaufman relates Wilde's trials to our current climate: He shares a broadcast interview featuring a Wilde expert giving his contemporary amusing psychological assessment of Wilde and his art.

There is a parallel between Victorian prudishness and today's judgmental self-righteousness. Although it's dismaying to learn that England's "gross indecency" laws stayed in effect until 1954, it's hardly a reason to reflect with satisfaction on our own enlightenment.

Performances will continue at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow and at 2 p.m. Sunday at 333 Dubois Road. Ticket information and reservations: 410-266-8044, Ext. 127, or www.dignityplayers.com.

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