When Oscar Wilde made his London debut as a playwright in 1892, the show received critical reviews, prompting Wilde to quip, "Oh, the play was a great success, but the audience was a total failure!" Indeed, he was right as Lady Windermere's Fan a biting satire on the social and sexual morals of the day became an international success and launched Wilde's witty epigrams into mainstream conversation.
Now playing at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, Lady Windermere's Fan is still as entertaining today as it was more than a century ago with scandals of infidelity, secrecy and deception providing the foundation for one of Wilde's best-known comedies.
Set in Victorian London, the curtain rises as Lady Windermere receives a visit from Lord Darlington on the afternoon of her 21st birthday. Clearly smitten with Lady Windermere, Darlington subtly hints of her husband's rumored infidelities in an effort to pursue his own infatuations.
Darlington's visit is followed by one from the Duchess of Berwick, who is not nearly so subtle and pointedly informs Lady Windermere that her husband has been seen making frequent visits to the mysterious and indiscreet Mrs. Erlynne.
Discovering a bank book with several clandestine payments to the unknown woman, the prim Lady Windermere assumes the worst and confronts her husband, who not only denies everything but insists that she invite Mrs. Erlynne to her birthday ball that evening.
A series of misunderstandings and deceptions ensues, with Wilde's trademark wit and intelligence in full force and many of his signature bon mots originating in the script.
Under the perfectly paced direction of Steven Scott Mazzola, a brilliant and talented cast brings Wilde's social parody to life with commanding performances by some of the region's most gifted actors.
Karen V. Lawrence as Lady Windermere is the picture of aristocratic petulance as she pursues the rash suspicion of infidelity by Lord Windermere, played to proper and humorless perfection by Lars Klores.
Adam Downs, who along with Klores appeared in the LTA production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, is mesmerizing as the inscrutable Lord Darlington and deftly delivers some of Wilde's most timeless axioms ("[a cynic is] a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing"). Downs' performance is especially heart-wrenching as the lovestruck Darlington desperately declares his love for Lady Windermere.
But it is with the much-anticipated entrance of Rebecca Lenehan as Mrs. Erlynne a disgraced woman who shamelessly flaunts her flirtatious ways that the play soars to perfection.
Lenehan, who won a Washington Area Theatre Community Honors award for her role in the LTA production of Picnic, dominates the stage from the moment she brazenly waltzes into the ball "looking like an edition de luxe of a wicked French novel."
Lenehan delivers a finely-tuned performance as the scorned Mrs. Erlynne, whose hardened disdain for the constraints of social proprieties is softened by the shameful secret she has kept for 20 years.
Notable performances in supporting roles include Gayle Nichols-Grimes as the controlling Duchess of Berwick, who doles out unsolicited opinions "Men become old, but they never become good" and barks orders to her zombie-like daughter Agatha, riotously played by a grimacing Meg Greene.
Adding to the solid troupe of characters in this milieu are Peter Laager as the vain and vulnerable Lord Augustus, Seth Vaughn as the engaging but callow Cecil Graham, Michael J. Fisher as Mr. Dumby, Ric Andersen as Mr. Hopper, Tadd A. Baffington III as Sir James Royston, Charles Dragonette as Guy Berkeley, Joseph Le Blanc as Lord Paisley and David Esterson as Parker.
Other meddling belles at the birthday ball include Angelena Le Blanc as Mrs. Cowper-Cowper, Dayalini Pocock as Lady Stutfield, Tabitha Rymal as Lady Plymdale, Carol Strachan as Lady Jedburgh and Leila Goldstein as Rosalie and Caroline Graham.
With astounding attention to detail, set designer Robert Gray and costume designers Kathy Dodson and Chris Macey have combined to create a lavish reproduction of Victorian London entrenched in luxury and leisure.
"I can resist everything except temptation," said Lord Darlington in his bittersweet pursuit of Lady Windermere. With a superb cast led by the incomparable Lenehan, Lawrence, Downs and Klores, the acerbic wit of Wilde's conversational swordplay is executed in a tour de force production of Lady Windermere's Fan that is thoroughly irresistible.
Lady Windermere's Fan is playing now through May 15 at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St. For tickets or more information, call 703-683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com.