Girls gone Wilde best part of Mamaí Theatre’s ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’
By Bob Abelman
Men are immoral cowards and incorrigible fools and, though they become old, they never become good.
So says playwright Oscar Wilde in his 1892 high-society comedy, “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” and he reinforces his position by offering his male characters the wittiest self-incriminating one-liners (“Good heavens! How marriage ruins a man! It’s as demoralizing as cigarettes, and far more expensive.”) and most emasculating dialogue.
It’s the women in this play — who, while privileged and well-positioned, live restricted and unsatisfying Victorian-era lives — take the moral high ground. And a few are supplied with Wilde’s most poignant, empowering soliloquies and pointed social commentary.
“Lady Windermere’s Fan,” staged by Mamaí Theatre under Bernadette Clemens’ direction, revolves around the virtuous and recently wed young Lady Windermere (Rachel Lee Kolis). After the gossip-mongering Duchess of Berwick (Laura Starnik) fuels rumors about Lord Windermere’s (Chris Ross) intentions toward the mysterious newcomer, Mrs. Erlynne (Heather Anderson Boll), Lady Windermere considers having an affair of her own with the charming Lord Darlington (Nate Miller).
She is rescued from this lapse of good judgment by none other than her suspected rival, which unfolds with as much melodrama as the unveiling of the reasons behind Mrs. Erlynne’s uncharacteristic act of heroism and unprecedented self-sacrifice.
All the men in this production are played with broad-based buffoonery befitting a Wilde satire, doing so with ease and an air of authenticity.
This is most effectively showcased in the third of the play’s four acts, when Lord Darlington returns home at 2 a.m. after a long evening at the club, along with Lord Windermere, the lovable and love-sick Lord Augustus (Robert Hawkes), the dispassionate Mr. Dumby (Stuart Hoffman), and the flamboyant Cecil Graham (Patrick Mooney).
The gentlemen engage in a delightfully drunken discussion of the differences between wicked and good women. Their exchange is as insightful regarding the sexual hypocrisies of the time — when England was experiencing the crumbling of the most formidable conventions and firmest convictions — as it is well-timed and very funny.
But Mamaí’s greatest strength is its ability to assemble an ensemble of remarkable female performers, and it has certainly done so in this production. In particular, Kolis allows us to see through Lady Windermere’s relentless puritanism and find someone we can relate to. The same is true for Anderson Boll’s Mrs. Erlynne, whose winsome and wonderfully manipulative flirtation gives way to a good heart as admirable today as it was back in the day.
Where this production falters is in its inability to portray a high society where style, we are told repeatedly, means more than sincerity.
Budgetary constraints seem to curtail creative decisions, so the same proscenium archway with three entrances designed by Don McBride and lit by Robert Peck serves as every location in the play save for adjustments in the color of the drapes that hang from each entrance, rearrangements in the limited, non-period furnishings, and the insertion or removal of a fireplace. Although Suzy Q. Campbell’s period costumes are stunning, this is not quite the highly stylized opulence one expects in a Wilde play.
And while it is not at all difficult to find contemporary relevance in Wilde’s words, torch songs by Joan Baez are inserted into set changes that are as out of place as they are unnecessary.
Late in the play, Mr. Dumby suggests that, “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Both tragedies are in evidence in this otherwise lovely production of Wilde’s comedy. CV
WHAT: “Lady Windermere’s Fan”
WHERE: Cleveland Masonic Auditorium, 3615 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through July 31
TICKETS & INFO: $15-$22. Go to mamaitheatreco.org or call 216-382-5146
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on July 19, 2016.
Lead image: Heather Anderson Boll as Mrs. Erlynne, from left, Rachel Lee Kolis as Lady Windermere, Chris Ross as Lord Windermere. PHOTO | Bob Perkoski