Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde

The great English writer Oscar Wilde is full of characteristic wit and dignity when his first trial begins in 1895. By the end of the third, he is broken-down and penniless, completely devoid of hope or happiness — but then, maybe he never really had either to begin with.

That, in a nutshell, is what happens in “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” playing through May 16 at Salt Lake Acting Company. Almost all of the play takes place in court, with a versatile ensemble cast playing numerous roles and speaking most of their dialogue directly to the audience, rather than to each other. It’s almost a documentary in that regard, a feeling that is enhanced with the actors frequently citing the biographies, newspapers and court records from which their dialogue was taken.

This could be distracting, but it’s not. The very static stage picture, with almost no movement and with most characters simply staring straight ahead could also be tiresome, but it’s not. Keven Myhre’s keen direction and a top-notch group of actors make this very difficult show come to life — evidence that sometimes real life need not be embellished upon to be interesting.

Oscar Wilde (Kurt Proctor) is the plaintiff in the first trial, suing Lord Queensbury (Robert Ormsby) for libel after Queensbury publicly accused Wilde of being a sodomite. Wilde winds up having to back off when the “libel” is proven true — he was as gay as they come — and all that evidence is used by the British crown to take action against Wilde in a second trial. This time, Wilde is the defendent, on trial for “gross indecency” — the Victorian-era terminology for homosexual acts, which were illegal in 1895.

That second trial results in a hung jury, but a third one has Wilde convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. By that time he has lost his long-time friend and lover Lord Alfred Douglas (Carl Nelson), as well as his previous fame and notoriety. He is truly a broken, sad man.

Proctor plays Wilde impeccably; he looks and talks exactly the way one would expect him to, with perfect grammar and a quick, satirical wit. He plays the courtroom for laughs at first (“I have never given adoration to anyone but myself,” he tells a lawyer who asks if he was in love with another man), but by the end is humbled and humiliated. It’s a vivid portrayal.

The supporting cast members are excellent in their various roles. The show drags now and then, especially near the end of the second trial, but the cast generally keeps the pace up quite well.

If there are faults in the play, they are these: The people who oppose homosexuality are caricatured, played as quite obviously the “bad guys,” with a Kenneth Starr-like zeal for salacious details. This is the playwright’s prerogative, of course, but a play this mature seems like it should be above such stereotyping.

Also, the play presumes the audience already knows how great a writer Oscar Wilde was. It is essential to understand that if we are to be sympathetic to his great downfall, but the play itself does little to establish it.

Still, the show is a fascinating depiction of a most interesting set of trials. The court’s judgment of homosexuals serves as a metaphor for the way society judges people without truly understanding their circumstances.

My 100th show for the Daily Herald! To celebrate, we went out to dinner first. Well, we always go out to dinner first, but this time was, um, special, I guess. I don't know. Never mind.

In honor of my 100th review, I decided to implement a letter-grade rating system. That's one of the things I've always liked about Entertainment Weekly magazine: You can glance to the end of the article to get a basic idea of what the reviewer thought, via the letter grade; then you can read the whole review to get details. I like at-a-glance things; I also like the fact that for 12 years of grade school and five years of college, the schools' whole view of who I was depended on some stupid, arbitrary letter grade ... and now I'm treating people's shows the same way.

I later went back and retro-graded the 99 shows prior to this one, based on the reviews, my notes, and my recollections. So everything's been graded now, for at-a-glance browsing.