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.