Rebecca M. Harrington ’08 as Lady Windermere explains her morals to a suitor (Jason M. Lazarcheck ’08) in a ’60s version of Oscar Wilde’s classic.
Oscar Wilde’s plays take place in a parallel universe where everyone is witty and wit is everything. Mention Wilde’s name, and people are far more likely to respond with the recitation of a particularly pithy or clever line than with a summary of the plot of “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
It is, accordingly, a world in which actors must carry much of the responsibility for the success or failure of a production, and the mostly superb acting in the current HRDC interpretation of “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” at the Loeb Experimental Theatre through October 21, goes a long way towards making the show a truly enjoyable experience. Directed by Lillian Ritchie ’08 and produced by Sandra Ekong ’08, the play falters, however, in many of the same areas as Wilde’s script—as the staging of many events essential to the plot seem unnatural.
The play opens with the devoted young wife Lady Windermere (Rebecca M. Harrington ’08, who is also a Crimson editor) explaining her morals to a well-spoken suitor, played by Jason M. Lazarcheck ’08. Within minutes, however, her self-described Puritanism is challenged when her friend, the bombastic Duchess of Berwick, played by Jen C. Sullivan ’09, tells her about what all of the upper crust has been discussing for months: the large sums of money that Lord Windermere (Brian B. C. Polk ’09) has been paying to Mrs. Erlynne (Allison B. Kline ’09), a woman with a shady past, who long ago lost her place in society. What follows is a series of crises—social, moral and personal—with cynical commentary and inspiring moments alike.
The setting is subtly updated to the 20th-century United States through ’60s fashion and the substitution of all references to England with “New England.” Though it doesn’t seem to make a significant difference thematically, the change is beneficial, since fussy Victorian petticoats and hats would have detracted from the true value of the play—watching the way people weave intricate webs of intrigue around themselves, and veer between frivolity and seriousness. Similarly, the minimalist set (just a few boxes, champagne glasses and the eponymous fan) also keeps the focus on the details of the characters’ manipulations.
The cast does an excellent job of interpreting much of Wilde’s juicy dialogue, which uses the musings and chatter of the idle rich to weave intricate tapestries of reflection about everything from marriage to the nature of good and evil (and how often those two subjects go hand-in-hand). The actors relish lines like, “Misfortunes one can endure—they come from outside, they are accidents. But to suffer for one’s own faults—ah!—there is the sting of life.”
And they do remarkably well with many of the key scenes: a confrontation between Lady Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne is powerful, rich in desperation and dramatic irony. Nearly all the characters sound completely convincing talking elegantly about why they are ruthless or superficial or why they’ve had a sudden change of heart.
However, other scenes don’t do quite as well—the party at which Mrs. Erlynne first appears should be a tense network of gossip and power struggles, a powderkeg ready to explode, but doesn’t quite achieve that level of drama. A few of the stylistic touches seem strange, like the jarring jazzy music and lighting cue (by lighting designer Blase E. Ur ’07) during the climax of the play.
All in all, though, the poise of the leading actors—who almost always manage to speak with the right balance of dandified aplomb and thoughtful sincerity—and the excellent support provided by characters like Cecil Graham (Zachary B. S. Sniderman ’09), make the production a thoroughly beguiling one. Despite some imperfections, the cast and crew do remarkable justice to Oscar Wilde’s particular manner of laying humans’ vices bare, one quotable line at a time.