- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2000

''Oscar and Speranza," the story of Oscar Wilde's relationship with his mother, is shot through with Mr. Wilde's signature wit. Yet even his keen mind cannot save this play from a bizarre contortion in the middle.
The work, enjoying its world debut under the auspices of the Trumpet Vine Theatre Company, is based on a series of letters written between the two Wildes in the last two decades of the 19th century. Because of, ahem, "creative differences," the author, C. Robert Holloway, has taken over the directorial reins, so the play probably is staged as it originally was intended to be.
The first act begins as Mr. Wilde (Travis Michael Holder) conducts his successful lecture tour in America. He constantly writes letters to his mother, Lady Jane (Jo May), whose nom de plume is "Speranza," Italian for "hope."
The loving son also sends newspaper clippings on his appearances and small amounts of money, which are consumed with equal relish by the grateful recipient. Though their family is aristocratic, Speranza is perpetually in debt. She lives vicariously through her son's literary reputation, being a thwarted writer herself.
One can see where Oscar got his sharp tongue: His mother issues catty remarks about others in her social circles and is unafraid to challenge a critical reputation. "I have just put down George Eliot's 'Middlemarch,' " she writes, "unable to march past its middle." Her hope is to gently navigate her son to success, and she rejoices in his ascent.
Sometimes the dialogue is carried out across the miles, but mother and son do see each other in person from time to time. Oscar marries and has a family, yet he is still restless and seeks pleasure in other company — specifically, male company, and not just for the companionship.
At the very height of his acclaim, after presenting a string of brilliant plays, Oscar suffers the most ignoble fall imaginable. He becomes smitten with Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, 21-year-old son of the Marquess of Queensberry, and carries out a torrid affair with him. The young man's father is not happy with the situation and attempts to intervene. Oscar responds by rashly suing the marquess for intimating that he is homosexual, a move that backfires devastatingly.
In court, the defense proves that Oscar Wilde is not only a "sodomite," as the marquess called him, but a promiscuous one at that. The trial triggers a charge of "gross indecency" against Oscar, which never would have happened if he hadn't launched his original claim.
When Speranza finds out her son is sentenced to two years of hard labor — the maximum sentence — she laments the stain on her family's name and her son's fate in equal amounts.
Then "Oscar and Speranza" gets postmodern on us.
At the beginning of Act II, we see Speranza as she was at the end of Act I, collapsed on a table, with her back to the audience. When she turns around suddenly, we see that Mr. Holder is playing Speranza. A few minutes elapse, and the imprisoned Oscar is now played by Miss May.
The role reversal is startling at first, then bewildering. Is this a reference to Oscar's homosexuality? Or does it signify that he was put in a feminine, vulnerable position while in jail? Or is it some sort of commentary about malleable human sexuality?
Whatever the reason, the sex-swapping scenes don't fit with the rest of the play, which is utterly conventional. They also detract from the pathos of Oscar's descent into public ignominy and physical degradation, which are coldly affecting.
Ironically, Miss May is more compelling when she plays Oscar than when she plays Speranza. In the dingy gray prison outfit, relating Wilde's first confrontation with his own corrosive pride, she is at home with her character. Her Speranza, by contrast, comes off like a New Orleans palm reader, both in dress and in action.
Mr. Holder does not pull off being a woman — which would be a compliment to most men — though it may be the role that is off-putting. When he is Oscar, he strives to maintain a slightly snobby nonchalance, no matter the circumstance. His decision to sue the marquess is made in an offhand manner, as if it were an everyday thing for him. Only at the end do we see through the camouflage of vanity and insecurity. As he is transformed from the man who says "the only thing worth living for is sin" into a deathbed convert to Catholicism, his facade finally is pierced.
Wilde's plays still are performed and still are quite funny, outlasting the controversies that surrounded his last years of life. It is conceivable that Mr. Holloway could improve a later incarnation of "Oscar and Speranza" and resurrect the play in a form worthy of its sources.
{*}1/2WHAT: "Oscar and Speranza"WHERE: Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre, 1611 N. Kent St., ArlingtonWHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 12TICKETS: $18-$22PHONE: 703/912-1649

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