Why is it so important to be earnest, er, Earnest? Oscar Wilde‘s tongue-in-cheek answer to that inquiry has been entertaining audiences for more than a century now. In yet another tribute to the man who was destroyed by the very society he parodied, PlayMakers Repertory Company presents The Importance of Being Earnest.

And what a tribute it is.

This play about love, capriciousness, and mistaken identity was Wilde’s last and most popular play; and it is, appropriately, the finale of PlayMakers’ 2009-10 main-stage season. Visiting director Matthew Arbour pulls out the stops in set design, costumes, and pure Victorian ambiance.

The awe-inspiring five-level set with its dark wood and soft upholstery is so warm and inviting that it makes the audience feel that they are enveloped in red velvet Snuggies for the entire play. Scenic designer Marion Williams and crew must have toiled for hours to make this a vision right out of an issue of Victorian Home and Garden.

The opening vignette is altogether worthy of the Great White Way, and must be seen to be believed. Library, foyer, music room with adorned grand piano, and attic with stacks of vintage luggage and hatboxes are all tiered on separate stories — on a rear turntable — like a wedding cake and connected by a spiral staircase and intricately carved columns. Add to that eye-popping microcosm each character in his or her own pre-play cameo, and it’s like watching a life-sized Victorian music box twirling for our enjoyment. The attention to detail will leave your senses spinning.

Thus begins the wild romp that is Earnest and that of our two rapscallions, Jack and Algernon. Jack is played with British bachelor propriety and delightful cluelessness by Jeremy Webb. Jack’s cohort Algernon is John Brummer, whose rakish Hugh Grant-ish performance makes this duo’s escapades all the more fun.

Casting Ray Dooley, a PlayMakers company member since 1989, as Lady Bracknell is a stroke of genius, and his/her entrance evokes a collective chortle from the audience. It’s a drag-queen touch that Oscar Wilde would have loved, and the perfect counterpoint to our two spit-polished macho men. In fact, Dooley could probably have hammed up Lady Bracknell (played on Broadway by Lynn Redgrave) a bit more, given the audience’s whole-hearted embrace of this otherwise intolerably pompous character.

On to the love-interests: Gwendolyn (Julia Coffey), daughter of Lady Bracknell, and Cecily (Marianne Miller). The female characters in this play are by far the more level-headed of the personalities, but Coffey and Miller manage to carve out distinctive personalities for their respective Victorian ingénues.

Julie Fishell is delightful as Cicely’s governess Miss Prism, her prim straw hat constantly askew. Miss Prism’s would-be beau, the Reverend Chasuble, was played by restrained understudy Matthew Murphy. A little less plausible, this May-December romance, but loose ends must be tied up. And Jimmy Kieffer as the longsuffering, though not unaware, butler to two cads, serves up plenty of Wildean quips in both country manor and city townhouse.

In addition, the dancing English maids who help change the set between acts are adorable and a lovely way to draw our attention from the nuts-and-bolts duties of prop and furniture moving.

The period costumes take a back seat to nothing in this play, and are stars in themselves, thanks to costume designer Anne Kennedy. Coat-tails, bustles, parasols, top hats, and feathered, veiled and jeweled bonnets sparkle on the set like crystals in a crown. The fabric itself is art, from Lady Bracknell’s heavy brocade to Cicely’s ribbony sashes.

A period piece, with its plethora of verbiage, The Importance of Being Earnest needs laughter to cut through the language; and there is plenty to be had in this production, even if we have to wait a while for the comedy to bubble to the top. Levity, after all, was Wilde’s purpose in this play, along with cutting sarcasm; and many of the passages are back-to-back one-liners that continue to resonate in the 21st century.

A plot that at times seems a bit scattered springs together in the last act and shows us, as it has for so many audiences, not only the importance of being Earnest but, more importantly, the importance of being Oscar Wilde.

This PlayMakers Repertory Company production of The Importance of Being Earnest continues through March 21st. Please see our theater calendar for details.