Carter's a 'Wilde 'Woman' Review: Dixie Carter's emotions form heart of Oscar Wilde's 'A Woman of No Importance.'

September 09, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Purity, says a character in Oscar Wilde's "A Woman of No Importance," "is the one subject of really national importance." The line draws a big laugh in director Michael Kahn's production at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre.

An even bigger laugh comes a few lines later, when the same character adds, "The growing influence of women is the one reassuring thing in our political life. Women are always on the side of morality, public and private."

But witty -- and surprisingly topical -- as such quips may be, it is the heartfelt emotion at the core of Kahn's stylish production that grants substance to the style. And most of the credit for conveying that emotion goes to lead actress Dixie Carter.

Carter plays Mrs. Arbuthnot, the most respectable lady in the English countryside where this 1893 comedy takes place. When we first see her, she is cloaked in black, in stark contrast with the fussy gowns -- most of Robert Perdziola's clunky designs look more like upholstery than clothing -- worn by the play's silly aristocratic ladies.

But Mrs. Arbuthnot's severe appearance -- indeed, her entire devout, churchgoing way of life -- is, as she later confides, a mask. She is a woman with a past, which she has hidden in an effort to raise her only child, Gerald (Matthew Greer), untainted by the secret stigma she bears as an unwed mother.

She has achieved her goal so successfully that Gerald has been fully accepted into British society, as evidenced by the offer of the distinguished Lord Illingworth to take Gerald on as his personal secretary. The problem is, Illingworth is not only a notorious rake, he is -- unknown to Gerald -- the young man's father.

Carter plays Mrs. Arbuthnot as a woman of wisdom and willpower. She is the sole exemplar of temperance and common sense in a world of fops and phonies. And though she may believe the life she leads is the phoniest of all, she is the only character truly in touch with reality. She knows exactly who she is and, most important, she knows her heart. She has dedicated her life to her son and will do anything to protect him.

This deep maternal feeling is the key to Carter's performance of a role that, in the wrong hands, could become ludicrously melodramatic. Instead, she imbues it with such genuine emotion that all of the play's superficial characters become her foils.

And Wilde provides plenty of superficial characters to choose from. In a play teeming with good parts for women -- each given a distinctly amusing personality under Kahn's guidance -- there's Jennifer Mendenhall's gullible and inane Lady Stutfield; Catherine Flye's perpetually scowling Lady Caroline; Sybil Lines' scandalous-tongued Mrs. Allonby; and, the hostess of the bTC gathering, Patricia Kilgarriff's excessively agreeable Lady Hunstanton, who can never quite get her facts straight.

Mrs. Arbuthnot's primary foil, however, is presumably her nemesis, Lord Illingworth. But Ted van Griethuysen is miscast in the role of this quintessential dandy. Illingworth is a man who proclaims: "The intellect is not a serious thing, and never has been. It is an instrument on which one plays, that is all." Yet van Griethuysen is an actor who exudes intellect and seriousness; it appears to be a struggle for him to portray a man who espouses "the philosophy of the superficial."

"A Woman of No Importance" is the Shakespeare Theatre's first Wilde play, as well as the first that Kahn has directed. And, overall, it is a winning production (which also boasts a stunning, architecturally detailed turntable set by James Kronzer).

The theme running throughout the play is the conflict between puritanism and profligacy, with a dash of feminism and class struggle thrown in. The resolution, endorsing moderation, couldn't be more timely for modern-day Washington. And what better example of its application than Kahn's admirably restrained production -- a production that thoroughly and effectively disproves Lord Illingworth's dictum that "nothing succeeds like excess"?

'A Woman of No Importance'

Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. N.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and noon Oct. 14 and 15. Through Oct. 17

Tickets: $14-$56

` Call: 202-547-1122

Pub Date: 9/09/98

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