Reviewed by Therese Bohn
What makes a good woman?
That is the question that pervades Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, which opened last Friday (April 28) at Binghamton University.
The parlor comedy, which is grandly being presented by BU’s theater department, revels in blurring the lines between what is considered a good or bad woman in high society, with many pokes at class distinction and what are deemed proper attitudes between men and women both in and out of marriage.
Lady Margaret Windermere is certainly a good woman: devoted wife, loving mother and the budding doyenne of the social set in Victorian London. She proudly shows off the birthday gift from her husband, a beautiful fan hand-embroidered with her good Christian name. She joyfully contemplates her birthday celebration, with little notion that an ill wind will soon blow into her perfect world.
The wind first arrives in small breaths as her flirtatious friend Lord Darlington wonders loudly if a married woman should take comfort elsewhere if her husband has been seen frequently lunching in the company of a dubious woman (not his wife) and possibly giving her money? The breaths intensify into a full storm when the Duchess of Berwick blows in, just bursting to tell Lady Margaret that Lord Windermere has indeed been keeping the company of a mysterious Mrs. Erlynne, who seems to have come out of nowhere. Not only is Erlynne a woman of questionable repute but she seemingly has bewitched his Lordship, managing to lighten his wallet in the process.
To Lady Margaret’s dismay, his Lordship begs his wife to invite Erlynne to the party, insisting his relationship is not untoward. He only wants to help the impoverished woman to reinstate herself in to society. He claims his wife is Erlynne’s last hope for acceptance, but Margaret refuses, threatening to smack Erlynne’s face with her new fan if she appears.
Lord W. is compelled to invite her anyway, confiding to the audience after his wife leaves the room that he “dare not tell her who this woman really is.?The shame would kill her.” Hmm …
All of these complications lead to a truly awful birthday party for her Ladyship. She could be a Victorian Leslie Gore singing “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to,” but, as she has sternly assured the Duchess, “I never cry.” Well, we’ll see about that.
With simple but elegant sets, intimate lighting and pointed direction by BU Theater legends Tom Kremer and Carol Hanscom, the whole production would make Wilde proud. Kremer brings a novel approach to the play; aside from the leads, the rest of the ensemble is incorporated into a Greek Chorus serving not only as party guests but as mouthpieces of the main characters’ inner monologues of doubt, betrayal and pride.
Platitudes abound, with stuffy characters addressing what is a good woman or man and what makes for a good marriage while offering bon mots about manners, morals and manipulation. Wilde’s cultured zingers pass quickly and cleverly, so keep your ears open.
The cast is superb, with Lady Margaret (Stephanie Herlihy) and Erlynne (Danielle Nigro) keeping you guessing as to which one is the “good woman.” When Erlynne is introduced, she hardly comes across as needy woman; she is vivacious, sensual and barely 20 years older than Lady Margaret. Yet she clearly has something shameful in her past that she is hiding, and she becomes more sympathetic as the story plays through. By the way, Erlynne’s first name is Margaret, too …
Herlihy’s Lady Margaret rides the emotions of joy through stoicism, suspicion, regret and back again with steady ease. Eric Berger’s Lord Windermere is a study in devotion but agony, and I’m sure many of the ladies would want Jeff Tagliaferro’s Lord Darlington as their darling, for one could not ask for a more devoted paramour.
Emily Enden’s pompous Duchess of Berwick is the chatty neighbor that no one wants, and The Chorus’ asides and insights keep the action moving while lambasting the very lifestyles of the frivolous, snooty narcissists they are. One wants to slug guest Cecil Graham (Gregory DeCola) who can’t understand how others in society are so boring while neglecting to see that he’s quite the bore!
Kudos also to the color story told through the costume design of Andrea Lenci and her team. The society ladies are all aflutter and poufy in their baby lavenders, pinks and ivories, and the gossipy duchess is a storm of gray satin and flounces. Meanwhile, Lady Windermere is initially innocent in her pure blues with white accents that grow darker in time, while the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne makes her entrance in a sleeveless sheath of deep plum velvet: scandalous!
Be prepared to enjoy a truly witty and fan-ciful evening at Lady Windermere’s Fan.
IF YOU GO: Performances continue at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Watters Theater of BU’s Fine Arts Building. Tickets are $18 (faculty/staff/seniors, $16; students, $10). Call 777-ARTS (777-2787), or visit theatre.binghamton.edu.
(Note: The ushers hand out small decorative fans to audience members in case they get the vapors and are overcome by such scandal. Just be sure to return them after the final curtain.)