Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2005
Now that I have sufficiently recovered from my rant about the poor design of the Main Stage Theatre in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance in which the Williamstown Theatre Festival is presenting Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan I can turn my attentions to reviewing the production. It is very good. A superb cast in glorious costumes declaiming Wilde’s witty dialogue on a sumptuous set. This is what the WTF was and is and should be all about.
A great many people spend a great deal of time saying that Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) is not the “perfect comedy” that The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) is. That is rather like looking at your children and saying what a pity it is that your daughter isn’t your son. They are both perfectly fine and healthy children, they are just different from each other.
In point of fact Lady Windermere’s Fan is not a comedy at all. It is a drama written with great wit and style. There are many very funny moments, but the story Wilde is telling is not light stuff. Earnest and Lady Windermere are as different as two siblings can be, and both are equally deserving of praise for their varying accomplishments.
Margaret (Samantha Soule) and Arthur (Corey Brill) Windermere are upper middle class Londoners, married two years and the parents of a 6-month-old son. The bulk of the story unfolds on Margaret’s 21st birthday, when she discovers that Arthur has been paying out large sums of money to the notorious Mrs. Erlynne (Jean Smart), an older divorced woman with a “past.” Margaret naturally assumes they are having an affair, but when she confronts Arthur with her discovery he denies that there is anything indecent going on and insists that Mrs. Erlynne be invited to Margaret’s birthday ball that evening.
To make matters more complicated, Lord Darlington (Adam Rothenberg) is passionately in love with Margaret, and Mrs. Erlynne appears to be about to accept a proposal from Lord Augustus Lorton (Jack Willis). They all appear, along with many other amusing characters on the London social scene, at the Windermere’s ball.
The fan of the title is a birthday gift from Arthur to Margaret. It finds its way into a compromising situation from which it, and Margaret’s honor, are rescued.
If this play had been written by a lesser playwright, I doubt that it would still be performed. We live in a world far remote from one where a woman’s entire life can be ruined because her fan is discovered in the apartment of an unmarried man. Likewise the disgrace that Arthur fears would befall him and his wife if her true relationship to Mrs. Erlynne were made public is alien to modern audiences. What makes still makes “Lady Windermere’s Fan” a viable piece of theatre is the lively wit with which Wilde renders each of his characters. We recognize the people even if we can’t relate directly to their dilemmas. In the end of the play Wilde has enabled the audience to know more than any of the characters on the stage. There is a happy ending, but only because secrets are kept and lies are perpetuated.
Director Moisés Kaufman has helped his cast firmly inhabit Wilde’s Victorian world, which further enables the audience to enter into the drama. Kaufman is considered a foremost authority on Wilde. His 1997 play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde ran for over 600 performances in New York City, and earned Kaufman the Lucille Lortell Award for Best Play and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play, among many others.
Samantha Soule perfectly embodies the young and naïve Margaret Windermere. Her character says early on in the play that today she is “of age”. But she isn’t really an adult until the day following her 21st birthday when her eyes have been opened to some (but not all) of her misconceptions about life and the thin boundary between good and evil. Soule is physically very beautiful and sensitively portrays Margaret’s anguish as she faces, for the first time, real life choices.
Jean Smart is every inch the femme fatale as the worldly Mrs. Erlynne. Her costumes were specially “executed” by John Kristiansen, New York, Inc., and they were worth the money. She looked absolutely stunning and was a grand advertisement for the charms of “women of a certain age”. While her appearance certainly doesn’t hurt, its Smart’s acting skills that are on display here. Her portrayal of a “bad” woman struggling to become “good” is powerful and moving.
Brill is called upon to do little more than act anguished in a stuffy Victorian manner, a job which he performs with panache. Various other handsome young men also perform admirably. I would certainly elope with Rothenberg’s passionate Lord Darlington, but I could easily be swept off my feet by either of those other British cads: Mr. Dumby (Chandler Williams) or Mr. Cecil Graham (Amber Gray). Okay, okay, so I thought Gray was the cutest, but before you write and complain remember that I am judging their appearance primarily based on the neatness of the parts in their hair. Gray’s hair looked fetchingly floppy from the second balcony, so I liked him best.
A highly entertaining performance is presented by Isabel Keating in the role of the gossipy Duchess of Berwick. Some things never change and social-climbing mothers who ram their awkward daughters down society’s already overstuffed throat will be with us always. Elliotte Crowell plays her long-suffering daughter Lady Agatha Carlisle, who finally makes good her escape by getting herself engaged to the Australian Mr. Hopper (Benjamin Pelteson).
Willis is lovely as the rotund and balding “Tuppy” (aka Lord Augustus Lorton) who wants nothing more than the comfortable abuse and neglect that comes with a settled marriage. And Derek Lucci inserts many amusing bits into what could be a walk-on role as the Windermeres’ butler, Parker.
With the exception of Smart’s gowns, the rest of the costumes have been designed by Kaye Voyce, and everyone looks just grand in their period evening wear. In an interview Smart was quoted as saying that the chance to wear period costume was one of the things that attracted her to this production, and I can see why. There may have been homely people in London society in the 1890’s but there were no ugly clothes!
Neil Patel has designed a very simple and elegant set, which simultaneously leaves Kaufman’s actors alone and enhances their performance. The set depicting the Windermeres’ drawing room is principally royal blue, with wonderful splashes of dark red thrown in. For the party scene a beautiful back drop of pink roses descends, and an elegant white staircase allows for gliding entrances stage right. Lord Darlington’s apartment is all dark wood paneling and oversized windows looking out over the dome of St. Paul’s cathedral and a dramatic London night sky. And then the wall of roses gently descends to the floor for the final scenes back at the Windermeres’ home the morning after the party.
This is a very entertaining and beautifully staged production. Wilde is the man of the summer in this area. I highly recommend you see it and also make an effort to catch one of the productions of Lady Windermere’s “perfect” little brother, The Importance of Being Earnest, running through July 23 at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Dorset, VT, and playing July 21-August 7 on the MainStage at Barrington Stage Company in Sheffield, MA.
Lady Windermere's Fan runs through July 17 on the MainStage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005