Gross Indecency puts Wilde on trial

Oscar Wilde (Craig Johnson) receives comfort from Lord Alfred Douglas (Casey Hoekstra)
Dan Norman

In 1895, Oscar Wilde was charged with committing "gross indecencies" — i.e., he was gay — but it was his art and personality that were on trial as much as his affairs with younger men. His poetry, letters, and masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray, were all fodder for a Victorian court, and society, hell-bent on crushing Wilde underfoot.

Moises Kaufman, whose Tectonic Theater Project masterfully delved into modern-day homophobia in The Laramie Project, takes a similar tack in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. The play uses various pieces of the historical record, from newspaper articles to excerpts to memoirs to the copious court proceedings, to look at the month when Wilde's successful life crashed and burned.

The play gets a rigorous and moving reading from Walking Shadow Theater Company, with director Amy Rummenie capturing the political and social motivations behind the trials, while actor Craig Johnson brings out the wit, intelligence, convictions, and eventually emotional ruin of Wilde.

The trials occurred in April 1895. Wilde was at the height of his popularity, with two hits running on the West End and holding court in high society. That didn't mean the moral and social arbiters of the time didn't have their sights on him. The man came with multiple strikes in Victorian society: He was flamboyant, had long hair, was Irish and — worst of all — was willing to challenge the confines and assumptions of the larger society.

The first libel trial was triggered by a card left by the father of Wilde's lover, the Marquess of Queensberry. The Marquess accused Wilde of being a "posing sodomite," which — as being gay in Victorian England was a crime (the law was not rescinded until the 1950s) — put Wilde in considerable jeopardy.

Spurred on by his lover — whose daddy issues could have been as much a factor as defending against libel — Wilde brought the case. When he lost, Wilde in turn found himself accused of "gross indecency." He was eventually found guilty and sentenced to two years of hard labor.

There's plenty of texture here, provided by a company of actors who take on dozens of roles, from the lawyers for the defense and the crown to the young men whom Wilde befriended and loved. Oh, and Queen Victoria, whom actor David Beukema obviously relishes portraying.

Casey Hoekstra takes on the part of Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Hoekstra isn't nearly as confident in his performance of Douglas as Johnson is as Wilde, making the character a bit muddled. It's hard to see what drew "Bosie" and Wilde so close — and why the successful author would risk all for this young man.

But the core here is Wilde, and Johnson's tremendous performance. While he is cagey about the details of his lifestyle — remember, an open discussion of it would be admitting to a crime — Wilde is rigorous in defense of his art. Johnson builds one of the deepest and richest performances on a local stage in quite some time.

It's not a matter of replicating how we envision Wilde to be, but investigating the deeply held convictions that led the man to stay in England when everyone, including those persecuting him, wanted him to flee the country. Johnson's performance makes it clear that Wilde's sense of personal honor is at the core of the story.

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