FOR MANY historians, the over sixty year reign of Queen Victoria represents the zenith of the British Empire. Yet, as all too many Englishmen discovered, the Victorian era was perhaps also one of the cruelest periods of British history--cruel not in the sense of physical abuse such as the English had been forced to suffer under the Tudors, but cruel in its absolute lack of tolerance for those who refused to strictly follow the "prim and proper" moral dictates of society. Those prominent Victorians whose lifestyle deviated from society's norms lived in the fear of finding Scotland Yard daily at their doors, ready to escort them to jail, ready to prosecute another sex scandal.
Of course, divorce was severely frowned upon by Victorian society, and any partner to adultery could count on permanent ostracization. Such is the situation of Margaret Erlynne in Lady Windermere's Fan, the first successful play written by Oscar Wilde. After just a few months of married life, she left her husband and baby daughter in favor of another man. Once he abandoned her, she was left alone in the world--a pariah from the social circles she had once frequented. Twenty years later she reads that her daughter has married a rich peer, Lord Windermere. Adopting the pseudonym 'Erlynne' as a disguise, she returns to London and sets out to blackmail Lord Windermere in the hope of retrieving her lost place in society.
ROBERT David MacDonald's production of Lady Windermere's Fan for the Harvard Summer School Repertory Theater is a finely polished presentation of Wilde's often bitter satirical commentary on Victorian mores. Although imperfect, MacDonald's careful staging and special efforts to leave Wilde's acid humor message intact make a highly entertaining performance that might even have amused Lady Windermere's eccentric author.
Darcy Pulliam pleasantly surprised this reviewer in her role as Lady Windermere. Though her first act work was somewhat stiffer and more wooden than hoped for from this Loeb veteran, she redeemed her rather shaky start thenceforth.
Patricia Falkenbain, playing Mrs. Erlynne, turned in an excellent job--as one might expect from a two-time winner of the Obie, off-Broadway's highest award. Her confrontation with Lady Windermere in act III was superbly executed, and indeed proved to be the highlight of the evening.
Director MacDonald's choice of Robert Garringer as that "wise old fool," Lord Augustus Lorton, proved to be quite apt--and most humorous. Richard Sale was impressive as Cecil Graham, the erratic character that in so many ways resembles his erratic playwright creator.
This reviewer was not particularly impressed, however, by either Kent Odell as Lord Windermere or Lewis Agrell as Lord Darlington. Odell through much of the play failed to put much expression into the role; his lines were delivered rather than felt. Agrell, as well, failed to project with any real clarity the impetuous nature of Lord Darlington.
DONALD SOULE's sets and Linda Martin's costumes were Victorian par excellence. In a rather unique design idea, Soule elected to extend a small terrace across the entire rear of the set, and in its contrasting to the high, vaulted ceiling, it built an atmosphere of expansiveness (It would be worthwhile, however, for the Loeb to paint the back wall of the stage, or at least remove the smudges, if they intend to go on using any more sets without a final drop or curtain in back).
The reviewer might quarrel with MacDonald's use of background music (it seemed rather superfluous in places and occasionally drowned out dialogue) and his decision to cut Wilde's final tying up of loose ends at the end of the last act, choosing instead to leave his audience in suspense (although Wilde's version is admittedly in the "all's well that ends well," tradition of Victorian drama, I think it does add to the character of Mrs. Erlynne).
In short, the Loeb's production of Lady Windermere's Fan is diverting, entertaining, and certainly worth seeing. It is funny, yes, but biting at its best. And the capping irony of it all: only four years after this play was first produced, Wilde himself fell into disrepute--just as his character, Mrs. Erlynne--by his failure to conduct himself by the too proper rules of Victorian propriety.