It’s not until the third act that “Lady Windermere’s Fan” begins to feel like an Oscar Wilde play; up until then it’s three parts melodrama and one part comedy of manners. And that presents a challenge to director Christopher Newton, who has wisely chosen to let the text loom large in all its opulent emotion and hang the consequences. The action is as highly colored as Christina Poddubiuk’s magnificent ball gowns, and on opening night the audience responded wholeheartedly, occasionally talking back at the actors on stage.
This is an opportunity for the Shaw Festival company’s younger company members to shine — and they do. Colombe Demers handles the supposed betrayal by her husband (Ben Carlson) with just the right amount of injured dignity and naivete. Carlson, stuck with a stiffly written character who cannot defend his actions and is given little to do by Wilde except rely on a stiff upper lip, manages nonetheless to make Lord Windermere more than a plot conveyance.
And Gordon Rand, as the dashing Lord Darlington, who offers to take Lady Windermere to a new life (one involving scandal), has a dark edge that hints at the villain of melodrama.
Among the veterans, top-rated Canadian thespian and net star Fiona Reid takes on the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne, who causes all the trouble, and it’s a solid performance that blends the harshness of a life gone wrong with the yearning for the love of her abandoned daughter. The scene in which she and Demers finally confront one another is touching and breaks through the artificial constructs of the play.
The play is set in the decadent society of the 1890s, and designers William Schmuck and Poddubiuk have brought to life the sumptuousness of the era, with glittering costumes and an ornate Victorian townhouse that floats on a revolve. Cloaked in Robert Thomson’s gold-flecked lights, it’s certainly the prettiest of this season’s offerings thus far.
But the play struggles to keep up with its production. Beyond the glitz, some famous epigrams and Wilde’s observations about the double standard faced by women (not a new thought by any means), the play is hollow. You have the feeling that it’s all been said much better by others (in Galsworthy’s “Joy,” for example, or Shaw’s “Major Barbara,” both playing at the fest this season). Indeed, even Wilde himself has done more in at least two of his plays.
In a festival devoted to Shaw and his contemporaries, with a mandate to producing lesser-known works of the period, there is ample reason for staging “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” But it is an irony that the level of the work artistic director Christopher Newton has achieved in nearly two decades leading the company sometimes serves only to show up the inadequacies of a chosen text.