THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, Pioneer Theatre Company, University of Utah, through Oct. 2 (581-6961). Running time: 2 1/2 hours (two intermissions).

Batten down the hatches!

Hurricane Augusta — a k a the fearsome Lady Bracknell — is blustering her way about the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre stage.

Oscar Wilde's classic comedy of manners (or ill manners, as the case may be), gets Pioneer Theatre Company's 2004-05 season off to a delightfully merry start.

PTC artistic director Charles Morey — now in his 20th year at the helm of the company — does more than deliver a deftly directed production. The casting of Max Robinson in the role of Lady Bracknell is pure genius.

There were three rounds of applause long before the finale on opening night — first when the curtain went up on scenery designer George Maxwell's first-act set for Algernon Moncrief's London flat (a huge room filled with charming period touches) . . . then when the overbearing Lady Bracknell made her grand entrance . . . and when the curtain went up on Act 2, revealing Maxwell's palatial garden at John (Jack? Ernest?) Worthing's manor in rural Hertfordshire.

The applause — as well as the resounding acclaim at the end — was well deserved.

There are only nine characters, but they manage to get themselves entangled in one social and romantic difficulty after another.

The spectre of Lady Bracknell is always there (even when she's not onstage), but the comedy's four central characters also drive the wry, British hilarity.

Jeremiah Wiggins and Patrick Hallahan are perfectly cast as Algernon Moncrief (Lady Bracknell's nephew) and John Worthing (also known as Uncle Jack). Both men embellish their social activity by taking on fictional alter egos — both named Ernest.

Krista Hoeppner and Michelle Six both light up the stage as Gwendolyn (Lady Bracknell's heavily protected daughter) and Cecily Cardew (Worthing's ward).

Along for the ride are Miss Prism, Cecily's tutor (nicely played by Peggy Cosgrave); the Rev. Canon Chausuble (John Seidman) and butlers Lane and Merriman — both played with comedic dignity by Richard Mathews.

Carol Well-Day's sumptuous costuming, Jeff Hills' lighting and Joe Payne's sound are also well done.

But it's Oscar Wilde's wry, full-frontal attack on British manners — still as delicious and fresh as Algernon's cucumber sandwiches — that make this classic as relevant as it was 109 years ago.