Directed by Jim Schneider
Produced by Dead Writers Theatre Collective, Chicago
“Ideals are dangerous things. Realities are better. They wound, but they are better.”
Visually Gorgeous Production of Wilde’s Melodrama
Dead Writers Theatre Collective is dedicated to high production values and beautiful aesthetics, so Oscar Wilde is a perfect fit. With its focus on high society, Wilde’s 1892 play Lady Windermere’s Fan allows a parade of dazzling Victorian costumes and props. The story itself falls into the genre of well-made plays, which is no longer in favor, and is heavy on melodrama. However, since part of the mission of Dead Writers is to give audiences a glimpse into the past, the antiquated features of the writing may be regarded as a positive part of the audience experience, and the actors are knowledgeable enough to make the melodrama palatable in its own regard instead of parodying it.
The story, which unfolds over twenty-four hours per classical tradition, takes place on Lady Windermere’s (Megan Delay) twenty-first birthday. She is already married and a mother, and her husband, Lord Windermere (Edward Fraim) has given her a fan ahead of the party she plans for the evening. Lord Darlington (Doug Reed), an admiring dandy, pays her a visit to pay his complements, which she is not completely comfortable with. While Lord Darlington has a cynical and pleasure-seeking attitude, Lady Windermere is a harsh moralizer, and does not believe in second chances. Lord Darlington hints that Lady Windermere may be justified in having an affair, which she rejects, but she is later joined by her friend, the Duchess of Berwick (Linda Roberts), who has very bad news for her.
The Duchess’s brother, Augustus (Michael Graham) has been courting a disgraced woman named Mrs. Erlynne (Joanna Riopelle). That’s not so surprising, given Augustus’s character, but the scandal is that Lord Windermere has been in frequent contact with the woman, and given her large sums of money. Lady Windermere doesn’t want to believe it, but she finds her husband keeps a hidden bankbook which proves he has not informed her of all his spending, and he begs her to invite Mrs. Erlynne to the party despite her bad reputation. Lady Windermere reluctantly agrees, and though she resolves to strike Mrs. Erlynne with her fan the moment she walks in, cannot even muster the courage to do that. Mrs. Erlynne proves very charming indeed, but Lady Windermere overhears her demanding more money from Lord Windermere, with an implied threat of blackmail. Following a marriage proposal from Lord Darlington, Lady Windermere writes her husband a letter telling him she has run away. But the letter is intercepted by Mrs. Erlynne, who is quite distressed on Lady Windermere’s behalf, and vows to save the lady from disgrace.
Moon Jung Kim’s set design is stunning. The checkerboard-patterned floor, gold columns, and green curtains which flank the striking blue fireplace in the third act are a feast for the eyes, and honor Wilde’s appreciation for beauty. During Lady Windermere’s ball, a number of characters appear mainly to model Victorian dresses, which Patti Roeder found extravagant examples of. The other characters note Mrs. Erlynne is a particularly fine dresser, and her costumes of red and brown grant her a highly dignified air. The only major problem is that the venue has a thrust stage, and pieces of furniture block the sightlines of the first rows of corner seats, preventing a substantial portion of the audience from seeing the beauty that is Dead Writers Collective’s hallmark.
Joanna Riopelle is a wonderful Mrs. Erlynne. She charms others in words so precise you can feel the careful thought that went into each manipulative tactic, along with the awareness of risk underneath. And yet, her tender spot for Lady Windermere is as undeniable as her ruthlessness. Her entrance at the ball is a moment of high tension, and to watch her seize control of the situation is a slow-motion demonstration of Riopelle’s acting talent. As Lady Windermere, Megan Delay combines stern exactitude with desperate insecurity. It is a credit to Delay’s sympathetic performance that Lady Windermere is only occasionally tiring, and always consistent. Christina Renee Jones and Shawn Hansen appear as a comedic couple, Lady Agatha and the Australian Mr. Hopper, in exaggerated roles that provide some relief from the melodrama, while Doug Reed’s Lord Darlington is strong on the melancholy side.
Wilde’s script, which includes characters directly addressing the audience at the end of scenes to explicate their fears and desires, is sometimes hard to swallow. He created a more serious tone for this play than in the later The Importance of Being Earnest, and in so doing, made his scathing comments on Victorian society awkward as much as amusing. It may also be that we today have such a low opinion of Victorian morality that mocking it doesn’t require as much cleverness, making Wilde a victim of his own success. Director Jim Schneider inserted Wilde himself into the play in the form of Cecil Graham (Travis Barnhart), a fun performance which includes many of the play’s swipes at sex and gender roles. A company that bases itself on showcasing works related to the past can hardly be faulted for providing exactly what they promise. And since old-fashioned melodrama is so rarely seen onstage now, it’s an interesting experience for audiences who know what they’re getting into. Other than the aforementioned sightline problem, the production is excellent, and should be fun for fans of Wilde and historical writing practices.
Playing at Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $40 with discounts for groups, seniors, and students; to order, call 773-327-5252. Plays Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 pm through June 7. Running time is two hours, with one intermission.