As the third and final political debate raged on television, an entirely different debate was raging onstage at University Theatre‘s opening night of Moisés Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. On a set of the familiar Old Bailey courtroom of 19th century London (deftly designed by student Alec Haklar), an even dozen cast members recreated the tragic events that led, ultimately, to the untimely death of playwright and bon vivant Oscar Wilde.

“Gross indecency” refers to the charges against Wilde (Matthew Coker) in the second and third trials that were held at the Bailey, after Wilde’s failed attempt to sue the father of his (assumed) lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (Louis Bailey), son of the Marquess of Queensbury (James Poslusny). In a notorious flubbed snub, the Marquess sent a note to Wilde at his club, indicating that Wilde was “posing as a somdomite.” Regardless of the misspelling, the indication was clear: Wilde was to steer clear of Lord Alfred Douglas, or face the wrath of an angry father, a situation Wilde was at first loathe to do. If bowing out would mend the fissure between father and son, Wilde was eager to see it done. But Alfred himself would not allow it; after consulting with his solicitors, Wilde warily set out to sue the Marquess for libel. This was trial number one, and the first act of the play. But in a legal maneuver designed particularly to punish Wilde for his folly, the defense solicitor, Parker (Parker Gagnier), demanded that an innocent verdict against the Marquess indicate that the slur against Wilde had been proven to be true. Wilde was therefore legally deemed a sodomite, and immediately arrested on that charge.

Kaufman carefully recreates the setting and circumstances of these three trials and the notoriety that accompanied them. We hear detailed testimony in all three trials, and it is evident that the legal community is from the very beginning set against Wilde as a degenerate, and set to convict him of such. Despite the fact that the second trial, the first against Wilde, ends in a hung jury, a third and final push to convict is mounted by the prosecution, and Wilde’s fate is sealed. His conviction is based upon the evidence provided by four “degenerate youths,” young men who give evidence that they have slept with the playwright. No court in the land would have failed to convict after these allegations.

Wilde is represented throughout his legal missteps by a prominent legal authority of the time, Sir Edward Clarke (Natalie Sherwood), who rose to defend Wilde at his own trials free of charge. Much is quoted from Clarke’s own notes of the trials. Much is also quoted from the newspapers of the day, which dubbed the proceedings “The Trial of the Century” and convicted Wilde in the press.

University Theatre has recreated the Old Bailey simply, with a high podium for the judge and a long table over which the proceedings fly. The central table is flanked on both sides by two pews, on which are seated many members of the audience, who become part of the play, along with several of the cast, who rise to comment constantly on these proceedings. In this ensemble cast, each actor plays many parts, with the notable exceptions of Wilde himself and Sir Edward.

Sherwood was captivating as Clarke, a man of studied demeanor and sharp legal mind. She and the rest of the cast were all onstage from the moment the audience entered the Kennedy-McIlwee Studio Theatre, which was ably suited for these proceedings. But director Rachel Klem was fortunate to have as Wilde a freshman who not only exceptionally handled the portrayal of Oscar Wilde, but actually resembled the man himself: Matthew Coker. From the picture of Wilde that graces the cover of the program, the resemblance was uncanny. Coker commanded the stage, and rightfully took over the proceedings as Wilde. It was a remarkable portrayal, and central to this creative and truly moving series of events. As the entirety of 1895 London swirled around him, Coker ably relayed the conflicting and painful emotions that rocked Wilde during this fall from grace. In a succinct and precise summation, the production’s sharp and quick cast conveyed the final years of Wilde’s life.

Gross Indecency is a fantastically constructed and fascinating study in the machinations of law and the demise of a man whose only sin was to tread on the sanctity of the English nobility. As soon as he made that one fateful decision, his fate was sealed. It is almost a certainty that his conviction for “crimes against humanity” were actually and only crimes against the elite, who could not fail to reciprocate. Such a slight could not stand; English mores would never have allowed such a thing. You do not challenge the English nobility. University Theatre’s production not only underscored this notion; it screamed it from the rooftops. It was a powerful and moving performance, and it is well worth your attendance.

Gross Indecency continues through Sunday, October 30. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.