Substance with underlying charm

Wilde's `Lady Windermere's Fan' at Center Stage laced with style


September 30, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Oscar Wilde is known for slick epigrams, and Lady Windermere's Fan contains some of the playwright's most famous quips. But glossy as the writing may be, director Irene Lewis' production at Center Stage proves that this is also a play with a lot of heart.

Set on the title character's 21st birthday, Lady Windermere's Fan paints a poignant portrait of a young woman coming of age emotionally as well as chronologically.

At the start of the play, Mahira Kakkar's wide-eyed Lady Windermere expresses a moral view that strictly differentiates good from evil, black from white. By the end, she has learned that these seeming opposites go "hand in hand," and that truth often lies in the gray area between the two extremes.

For Wilde, who defied the strictures of society at the same time that he climbed the social ladder, Lady Windermere's realization can be seen as a manifesto. For Lady Windermere, however, it's a lesson that transforms innocence into maturity.

The character most responsible for imbuing the play with emotional heft, however, is Mrs. Erlynne, an older woman of questionable virtue. As portrayed by Felicity Jones, this calculating woman's discovery of her long-dormant maternal feelings is so eloquent, it moved at least one theatergoer seated near me to tears.

The plot turns on a fan that Lord Windermere has given his wife for her birthday. According to the Victorian era's double standards, a man could get away with a peccadillo, but it would spell ruin for a woman. So, when Lord Windermere begins keeping company with Mrs. Erlynne, London society appears to accept his behavior. But when Lady Windermere's fan turns up in another man's flat, her reputation and, indeed, her future is at stake.

At Center Stage, the backdrop of designer Tony Straiges' elegant set is a giant fan with a doorway cut through its center. As characters enter and exit through this backdrop, it reinforces the notion that a fan could signal Lady Windermere's final exit from so-called "proper" society.

In a Wilde play, style is practically a character in its own right, and Straiges' set is one of many ways this production gets the style down pat. Candice Donnelly's costume designs are also on the mark, whether she is clothing Mrs. Erlynne in a yellow gown that looks straight out of a provocative John Singer Sargent painting, or wrapping Lady Windermere's bustline in a big velvet bow, as if she were one of her own birthday presents.

Most of the actors also exude style, especially Ethan Flower as Lord Darlington, the handsome bachelor in whose apartment Lady Windermere's fan is found; Trent Dawson as one of Darlington's wisecracking cronies; and David Cromwell as a dim aristocrat with the look of a vintage Vanity Fair Spy caricature.

One of the few exceptions to this adherence to Wilde style is Michael Bakkensen, whose Lord Windermere doesn't look or act "to the manor born." On the other hand, as his wife, Kakkar conveys the dainty elegance of a doll in fancy dress. But while she excels at conveying Lady Windermere's naivete, later on Kakkar tends to lapse into melodramatics.

As is fitting for a comedy in which gossip figures so prominently, Lady Windermere's Fan is more a play of words than action. Director Lewis spices things up by filling the spaces before each scene with set changes that involve everything from a dancer in evening dress doing acrobatics to a concert pianist playing a toy piano.

Wilde's words, however, not unlike those of George Bernard Shaw, are often action in and of themselves, and in the end, Lewis' most effective interpolation is one of her simplest - a final romantic glimpse of Lord and Lady Windermere dancing.

Although less often revived than some of his other plays, Lady Windermere's Fan was Wilde's first stage hit. "People are either charming or tedious," Lord Darlington says. "I take the side of the charming." So does this production - but it also finds the substance underneath the charm.

Lady Windermere's Fan

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, through Oct. 24

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

Admission: $10-$60

Call: 410-332-0033

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