There's a traditional curtain at the front of the Shakespeare Theatre stage for its production of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan. Regional theaters - and this one in particular - rarely use these curtains anymore. But if the curtain has an antique feel, the themes in this 1892 play still strike a modern note.
Maybe that's why this play has undergone a recent resurgence. Center Stage opened its season with a revival; the Shakespeare Theatre ends its season with another revival; and next month the play will launch the season at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.
The lesson that young Lady Windermere learns in the course of this comedy of manners is that, as she puts it, "There is the same world for all of us, and good and evil, sin and innocence, go through it hand in hand." It's an anti-reactionary, anti-fundamentalist, anti-Moral Majority stance that holds that no one is entirely good or entirely bad and that believing in absolutes is not only naive, but dangerous.
Tessa Auberjonois' Lady Windermere, for example, is perceived by high society to be the epitome of purity and goodness. And Dixie Carter's Mrs. Erlynne, a woman of the world, is perceived to be a mercenary temptress. (Incidentally, another of TV's Designing Women - Jean Smart - will play this role at Williamstown.)
But these characters have more in common than they initially realize. Lady Windermere is capable of betrayal, and Mrs. Erlynne is capable of self-sacrifice. Each grows from her discovery of her true nature, and both Auberjonois and Carter are at their best in those revelatory moments.
These women are much sharper than the supposedly powerful men around them, and director Keith Baxter and his supporting cast have a great deal of fun with the men in this aristocratic milieu. There's David Sabin's vain but sweet Augustus; Gregory Wooddell's cynical dandy, Cecil; Stephen Patrick Martin's self-deluded bore, Mr. Dumby; and especially Matthew Greer's hopelessly lovestruck Lord Darlington. Greer, however, makes this misguided Romeo - who could easily come off as a lothario - a sympathetic character.
Also effective are stentorian-voiced Nancy Robinette as the trouble-making, gossip-mongering Duchess of Berwick (the actress is a natural for Lady Bracknell) and Andrew Long, who, as Lord Windermere, evinces unmistakable affection for his young wife and also proves capable of personal growth.
Simon Higlett has designed sumptuous sets for this elegant production and Robert Perdziola's costumes also exude grandeur, with a tinge of humor thrown in. For instance, the play takes place on the 21st birthday of idealistic, immature Lady Windermere, and her first gown is a fluffy pink beaded number that looks as if it's made of sugary birthday cake icing.
Wilde was known for his epigrams, and Lady Windermere, his first successful play, contains some of his wittiest. "I can resist anything but temptation," Lord Darlington quips. The Shakespeare Theatre's charming production is a nearly irresistible temptation.
Lady Windermere's Fan
Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St., N.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through July 31