Dixie Carter is an emotional sort, someone who sheds a tear while describing a moment she has probably seen dozens of times in husband Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight!" So imagine what a difficult time the actress has keeping her eyes dry and emotions in check while playing a character she views as deeply tragic -- the disreputable femme fatale Mrs. Erlynne in "Lady Windermere's Fan." (Oscar Wilde's comedy-melodrama of upper-class English mores in the late-Victorian era is at the Shakespeare Theatre through July 31.)

Says Carter of Mrs. Erlynne, who has taken and disposed of many a lover and his wealth, "Jaded would barely cover this one." Director Keith Baxter agrees: "The milk of human kindness is curdled in Mrs. Erlynne. Only in the second act does she experience emotions that she had abandoned forever."

It was that untapped well of feeling that won Carter's heart as she read the play. She says she called Baxter at his home outside London before rehearsals began and begged, "Please allow me to weep during the rehearsals, just to get it out of my system. And he said, 'No, no, no!' " Carter says the director warned if she let the tears flow in rehearsals, she would not be able to turn them off in performance. She recalls Baxter telling her "how much more interesting it would be for you to play a woman who has been maimed permanently and has cried her last tear." That did it.

"I, Dixie, have not cried my last tear," she declares, but says it is "thrilling" to play someone who has.

There is a secret about Mrs. Erlynne that is strongly hinted at just prior to intermission in this production. Baxter decided to cut an earlier line that he felt gave it away too soon. On the other hand, he has added to the story a tart-tongued elderly gent for esteemed 90-year-old company member Emery Battis to play, giving him a few of the other characters' lines.

He has also written a few new lines of dialogue (about the weather and supper) to cover a quick costume change for Tessa Auberjonois, who plays the naive title character.

Wilde might not approve of all that tinkering, the director concedes, but as for the lines to cover the costume change, the author "was a wonderful man of the theater and he would have understood that immediately."

A key idea in the play, says Baxter, is that people make silly or tragic choices when "in the grip of sexual desire." In this, Wilde proved prescient about his own fate. The play, says Baxter, is "dotted" with lines that "would have the most appalling relevance for Wilde" one day. Such lines are both comic ("I can resist everything except temptation") and somber ("Misfortunes one can endure -- they come from outside, they are accidents. But to suffer for one's own faults -- ah! -- there is the sting of life").

The playwright, says Baxter, "could not have known that three years later he'd be standing in jail [garb] in Clapham Station," tried for his homosexual liaisons and imprisoned. His life wrecked, Wilde died in 1900.

The Teacher's Pet Project

Jane Pesci-Townsend has sung and acted all over town, and famously filled in for Christine Baranski as Mrs. Lovett at a performance of "Sweeney Todd" during the Kennedy Center's 2002 Sondheim Celebration. She has taught musical theater and voice for years and chairs the music theater department at Catholic University. She has directed 46 shows in 17 years, but they've all been with student performers.

Now, she is going pro as a director, staging the intimate two-character show "The Last Five Years," by Jason Robert Brown, at MetroStage in Alexandria. It runs tomorrow through July 24.

Co-stars Tracy Lynn Olivera (whom Pesci-Townsend describes as "scary-good") and Mark Bush ("wicked talented") are her former pupils. It was Olivera, says Pesci-Townsend, who gave MetroStage's Carolyn Griffin a CD of "The Last Five Years" and suggested her onetime teacher as the person to stage it. The show has been a cult fave of music-theater buffs since its 2001 debut, and if Griffin "had solicited offers from [other] people, people would have beaten her door down," says Pesci-Townsend. "I wouldn't have been able to get in."

The piece traces the arc of a failed marriage in a song cycle -- the man recalling it from its happy beginning to sad end and the women recalling it in reverse. "In the middle, when they get married, they have a duet, but it's only about 32 bars of music," says Pesci-Townsend. "You haven't even noticed how much you are dying for them to look at each other. The whole idea of chemistry is never fully realized until that moment."

The question for her has been whether she could direct professionals, even if they were her former students, and not lapse into teaching mode. It's been a matter of stopping just short.

"I will give a note [a direction], and in an academic setting, I would say, 'I would like you to move here and do this and deliver that line differently,' and . . . I would say because" and then explain why. Olivera and Bush "don't need the 'because,' because they know it already."

Follow Spots

* A new play, "Return to Vietnam" by Rachel Bail, will be premiered by the McLean Drama Company, Friday through June 26 at the Alden Theatre in the McLean Community Center. Call 703-790-0123 or visit www.mcleancenter.org.

* Keegan Theatre will join forces with the new Solas Nua troupe to present Martin McDonagh's "Beauty Queen of Leenane" and Enda Walsh's "Disco Pigs" in repertory June 23-July 27 at the Church Street Theatre. Keegan had planned to do "Death of a Salesman" in its summer slot. Call 703-527-6000 or visit www.keegantheatre.com.

Andrew Long and Dixie Carter as Lord and Lady Windermere in the Shakespeare Theatre's "Lady Windermere's Fan." In left photo, Jane Pesci-Townsend, right, directs her stars in MetroStage's "The Last Five Years": Tracy Lynn Olivera and Mark Bush.