In 1895 Irish-born writer Oscar Wilde was the toast of London, with two hit comedies playing on the city’s West End. Wilde had gained access to the British upper class — a class which he satirized in his popular plays. However, it wasn’t satire that became his undoing, it was his relationship with a man two decades his junior, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas.
In “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” playwright Moisés Kaufman chronicles and analyzes that undoing almost entirely out of actual documents of the time. He weaves court transcripts, newspaper articles, reviews, autobiography, literary cuttings, comments by George Bernard Shaw, and other sources into a gripping unified whole. Walking Shadow Theatre Company opened a new production of the 1997 play last weekend at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage.
Director Amy Rummenie scrupulously guides this multifaceted script into a juicy edge-of-your-seat experience. The play hinges on Wilde (Craig Johnson), Bosie (Casey Hoekstra), and Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry (James Tucker). When Queensberry writes that Wilde is a ‘posing somdomite’ on a calling card that he leaves at Wilde’s social club, the die (despite the misspelling) is cast.
Trial one involves a private libel suit Wilde brings against Queensberry. Trial two has Queensberry give proof that Wilde engaged in illegal sexual acts with young men, but no verdict was reached. In trial three, Queen Victoria charges Wilde with “gross indecency with male persons.”
Johnson is captivating in his regression from cocky confidence to profound self-doubt and shame, but he could be more flamboyant in the first half. Tucker’s Queensberry sears and seethes as a vindictive brutish man who takes for granted that heterosexuality is the natural order of things.
Hoekstra’s superbly balanced embodiment of Bosie makes him more than just a spoiled rich kid. He humanizes him as a youth in his early 20s who viscerally feels his father’s psychic brutality. We see an innocent genuinely incapable of fathoming the cruelties of the whole situation.
The all-male acting ensemble performs like a symphony orchestra. However, there are some false notes in the play’s few contemporary scenes. David Beukema plays library director Marvin Taylor, who explains how homosexuality was not perceived in 1895 as an identity, a concept that would come much later. The scene is played for easy talk-show style laughs.
Jim Pounds and Brian Columbus give nicely anchored performances as lawyers. Beukema, Grant Sorenson, Alex Brightwell, and Bryan Porter shine as youths the Crown has seemingly coerced. Their fascinating testimonies remind us how easily sexual innuendo can be used to distort and deflect in service of politics. E. Amy Hill’s costumes capture the 1890s look. Steve Kath’s set design is simple and functional.
John Townsend is a Minneapolis writer.