If what you know of Oscar Wilde is the nonstop barrage of droll wit that makes up his ever-popular The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere's Fan offers plenty of that, but it also proves a welcome change of pace. The play contains many of Wilde's most famous one-liners (such as "I can resist anything except temptation" and "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars"), especially in one scene of guy talk that's bursting with epigrams. But there's a lot more here than just droll Wildean wit. Windermere shares with Earnest a sharp satire of the hypocrisies of Victorian morality, but the lessons learned in it are profound and powerful.
The titular Lady Windermere is a very proper young wife, so young that she's preparing for her coming-of-age birthday ball. Lady W is positively puritanical in the standards she holds people to, particularly women, and she's beset by shocking impropriety on all sides. Her friend Lord Darlington insists on carrying on shameless flirtations with her, and she finds out that her loving husband has been seen visiting a notorious divorcee, Mrs. Erlynne, and may in fact have been giving her money. And now Lord Windermere insists on inviting this scandalous woman to hobnob with polite society at Lady W's own party. What is she to think, and how is she to bear it?
Stacy Ross and Emily Kitchens
Wedged between Romeo and Juliet and A Winter's Tale in California Shakespeare Theater's summer season, Lady Windermere's Fan is directed by Christopher Liam Moore, an Oregon Shakespeare Festival regular (and longtime partner of OSF artistic director Bill Rauch) best known in the Bay Area for playing the role of Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone in Ghost Light at Berkeley Rep. To be honest, I was planning to skip this show, but when the cast was announced it changed my mind. This production boasts a stellar lineup of some of the Bay Area's most superb actors and would be well worth seeing for that alone. That it's actually a darned good play is just icing on the cake.
Emily Kitchens is a bright and effervescent Lady Windermere, sparkling in happiness and twitchy in dismay. Aldo Billingslea is strong and reassuring as her equally upright husband, who clearly loves her but is just as clearly keeping something from her. Stacy Ross is particularly compelling as the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne, whose assured charisma has everyone around her eating out of the palm of her hand. But Ross also makes it very clear that all this charm is a hard-won survival skill of someone who's had to claw her way back from ruin.
Aldo Billingslea and Emily Kitchens
The rest of the characters are a veritable sea of high-society types that come calling on the Windermere household. Perhaps the most important to the plot is Lord Darlington, Lady W's biggest fan, played by Nick Gabriel with impish playfulness tempered by a nagging sense of sincerity. Danny Sheie is hilarious as the gossipy Duchess of Berwick, who relishes scandal so much that she can scarcely contain her glee as she professes to abhor it. She's accompanied by her blankly obedient daughter, played with hysterically wide-eyed haplessness by Rami Margron. Both Scheie and Margron play double roles at the Windermere's ball, and it's a joy to watch them so completely transformed as they wander out of Annie Smart's elegant set of a stately sitting room and return as someone else entirely, in another fabulous period gown by costumer Meg Neville.
L. Peter Callender is a lively presence as the chatty and happily befuddled Mr. Dumby, and Dan Clegg exudes louche charm as a young society wastrel. James Carpenter is charmingly content to be the butt of everyone's jokes as the most ardent sucker for Mrs. Erlynne's wiles, with a knowing smile that suggests that he claims she's not as scandalous as everyone says for appearance's sake -- but secretly hopes that she is. Tyee Tilghman has a winning earnestness as a young Australian visitor, and Bruce Carlton is suitably dour as the butler.
Stacy Ross, Aldo Billingslea and Emily Kitchens
Moore's production is delightful, leavened by Wilde's reliable wit and the energy of so much talent on one stage. There are a number of smart staging choices, such as having Margron and Tilghman dancing through the only laborious scene change. The only false note is the risible choice to have Mrs. Erlynne staggering around clutching at the walls as if on a ship in a typhoon when something upsets her usual veneer of calm. As enjoyable as the comedy is, it also packs an emotional punch as the characters learn the hard way that "there is a bitter irony...in the way we talk of good and bad women."
Lady Windermere's Fan runs through September 8, 2013 at Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda. For tickets and information visit calshakes.org.
All photos by Kevin Berne.