True genius stands the test of time, and ACT I's current production of Lady Windermere's Fan offers affirmation that Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was touched with it. In relative terms, Wilde's output of plays and novels was modest, yet his incisive and bitingly humorous takes on human folly, especially among the upper classes, are characterized by timeless insights into human behavior and truisms that demand serious (if bemused) reflection.
The ACT I effort is by no means definitive, mostly because the acting is uneven. Yet the stalwart cast is held together nicely by Melissa Bedinger-Hade's canny direction. The spirit is right, everyone cues in to his or her character's type, and the classic Wildean bons mots provide the audience with a chance to ponder the ironies of male-female relationships and laugh sincerely at the same time.
It's London, 1892. Margaret Windermere is a young wife and mother who suddenly suspects her otherwise upstanding husband of carrying on with an older widow, Mrs. Erlynne. Meanwhile, the raffish Lord Darlington has expressed his love for Lady Windermere. Our heroine is confused by it all, to be sure, but help from an unexpected quarter gets her life back on its honorable path. The plot devices include a potentially dangerous letter and the play's one great secret, which is handled cagily by the master playwright.
In between, we get to see British lords and ladies in all their arrogance, foolishness, cynicism and cattiness, evoking chuckles and moving the action forward.
Luckily, the best performances are in key roles. Emily White, as Lady Windermere, renders an engaging portrait of a naively charming woman who struggles earnestly with her marital issues and emerges triumphant. Unself-consciously, White endears us to her character and elicits lovable laughs. As Mrs. Erlynne, Caroline Davis provides her usual strong work in a role well-suited to her gifts for portraying sharp-minded, manipulative society ladies. Kurt Schlachter doesn't take readily to his role as Lord Windermere, yet by evening's end we come to believe in his innate decency. Matthew G. Davis' Lord Darlington is a tad quirky, but he's directed well and his acting ultimately satisfies.
The supporting players make good contributions, too, in particular Linda Speir as a funny, sharp-tongued Duchess of Berwick, Jerri Owen as her vapid daughter, Debi Shinners as comic Lady Plymdale, Michael Roark as the gossipy Cecil Graham, and John Silvestro as bumbling, well-intentioned Lord Augustus Lorton.
Wilde wrote this play in four acts, but it's presented here in two longer ones. Except for one talky stretch of dialogue between Mrs. Erlynne and Lord Windermere as the plot nears denouement, the play is well-paced throughout.
Bedinger-Hade also designed the attractive set and costumes, receiving help with the latter from Tina Turbeville and Jeanne Ackerley. The ladies' outfits are notably well-crafted and stylishly period-appropriate.
Lady Windermere's Fan continues at the Darkhorse Theater through May 15.
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