- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 3, 2004

Who knew that behind Oscar Wilde’s polished wit, petaled paradoxes and notorious green carnation boutonniere there beat a heart of gold?

Director Irene Lewis brings out the emotion in Wilde’s comedy “Lady Windermere’s Fan” without sacrificing a whit of style. She and Centerstage have outdone themselves with a sumptuous production that looks like a 19th century painting in a gilded frame come to life. Tony Straige’s set features a huge, ornate fan with a doorway cut through the center. The characters enter and exit through the door, symbolizing the comings and goings in polite society.

Candice Donnelly’s envy-inducing costumes use a palette of enameled shades: pistachio green, magenta, acid yellow and wedgewood blue. Her costumes so strongly convey character that you know upon sight that Mrs. Erlynne (Felicity Jones) is a scandalous woman by her bright yellow silk gown trimmed in chartreuse feathers, a colorful variation on the John Singer Sargent portrait, “Madame X,” and that Lady Windermere (Mahira Kakkar) is a dolled-up confection in light green with an enormous bow wrapped around her bustline, presumably a perpetual gift to her husband.

Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting casts a pearlized glow upon the proceedings, including Miss Lewis’ trademark active set changes, which in this instance are “danced” on and offstage by a phalanx of courtiers led by the nimble, acrobatic Dancer (Warren “Wawa” Snipe). Another oddly affecting set change has a lace-clad Musician (Amy Klosterman) performing on a toy piano.

Beneath all this visual beauty lies great depth. The circa 1892 play is, on the surface, a comedy of manners full of plummy epigrams, art for artifice’s sake, and a plot that turns with the flick of a fan.

At its root, however, “Lady Windermere” explores the touching coming of age and emotional maturity of the title character as she reaches her 21st birthday.

In the beginning, Lady Windermere seems a drearily earnest, wide-eyed creature who divides the world into “good” and “bad” and wants nothing to do with the latter category. The rashest slur she can concoct for the flirtatious Lord Darlington (Ethan Flower) is “wicked.” She reserves her vitriol for Mrs. Erlynne, a mysterious, social-climbing femme fatale who has a hold over the wealthy Lord Windermere (Michael Bakkensen). Morally outraged that her husband might be consorting with such a person, Lady Windermere clings to her rock of prudishness — until painful circumstances force her to realize that good and evil are not poles apart, and that the truth often lies in grayish ambiguity.

With its treasure trove of great quips (“These days, to be intelligible is to be found out,” “We are in the gutter but some of us are looking up at the stars,” “I can resist anything but temptation” and “Men — they all become old, but they never become good”) “Lady Windermere” may appear to be all about gloss and insouciant bon mots.

The wit and frivolous “mistaken identity” plot are foils for Wilde’s passionate railing against a double standard for behavior in Victorian society. Men are admired for dalliances and adultery, often with other married women. Yet, any whiff of impropriety in a woman means irrevocable ruin.

The sociological message of “Lady Windermere” is downplayed at Centerstage in favor of a production that ardently addresses matters of the heart. Lady Windermere’s journey from a trivial girl to a wised-up, nearly heartbroken woman is achingly charted through Miss Kakkar’s daintily calibrated performance.

However, the evening belongs to Miss Jones’ dashing, eloquent turn as Mrs. Erlynne. With her insinuating voice and sinuous carriage, Miss Jones is every bit the calculating schemer. But it’s when her suppressed maternal instinct surges to life in the second act that the actress takes on a gravity that nearly moves you to tears.

Many of the women’s roles are perfectly performed, especially Mary Catherine Wright as the tastefully snide Duchess of Berwick and Chelsey Rives as her silent, good-natured daughter Agatha.

The men don’t fare as well, with Mr. Bakkensen seeming too “of the people” to be a rich and titled Englishman and Mr. Flower’s Lord Darlington not gaining allure beyond the merely charming until late in the second act. The play’s more mature actors fare admirably, however, with David Cromwell’s mischievously entertaining Lord Augustus and Laurence O’Dwyer as the merrily sotted Mr. Dumby.

Wilde imbues “Lady Windermere” with an affected beauty that is hard to convey without cynicism. Miss Lewis captures this heightened sensibility without a hint of gaud, giving us a production breathtaking in its delicacy and substance.

***

WHAT: “Lady Windermere’s Fan” by Oscar Wilde

WHERE: Centerstage, 700 North Calvert St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 24.

TICKETS: $10 to $60

PHONE: 410/332-0033

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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