If a key to a happy rendezvous with Oscar Wilde is style, style, style, the Shakespeare Theatre serves it up by the champagne-bucketful in its immensely pleasurable "Lady Windermere's Fan." Keith Baxter's production betokens good breeding in every sense, from the opulence of Simon Higlett's late-Victorian sets to the lush gentility with which Wilde's peerless epigrams are uttered.
The director, who shepherded a similarly well-appointed production of "The Rivals" at the Shakespeare last season, treats us to a vivid account of London swells in the early 1890s. The cast of 26 deftly manages the difficult trick of defining each character's specific perch on the social ladder. Muddier productions oftentimes lose their way in bejeweled parades of Lord This and Lady That. Baxter's, however, holds its own as a polished and piquant guide to Wilde's world of pettiness, haughtiness and self-delusion.
"Lady Windermere's Fan" was Wilde's first big hit -- his masterpiece, "The Importance of Being Earnest," would come a few years later -- and in some ways, the bubbly impact of "Earnest" has made it harder for contemporary audiences to adjust to the moralizing in "Lady Windermere's Fan." Wilde's fans, it seems, just want to have fun. You could sense, at the beginning of Sunday's performance, an audience itching for a wholesale romp.
But while there's wisdom in this play's funny observations about the pursuits of the upper classes, the differences between gossip and scandal and the meanings of goodness, it's not "Earnest." Although the play has a climactic moment of farce that is wonderfully realized on the Shakespeare stage, the secrets unraveled in "Lady Windermere's Fan" conform more to the dictates of melodrama than to those of drawing-room comedy. The play prompts chuckles rather than cackles.
Baxter, though, has a light touch with comedy -- he's a fine actor himself -- and he books the audience a sure passage to enjoyment. Some of the performances are as grandly comic as you ever see in "Fan": Nancy Robinette's priceless Duchess of Berwick, for instance, is pure inspiration. The actress barks delectably at the frowning Tonya Beckman Ross, playing her bullied, melancholic daughter Agatha, who is woe personified. David Sabin, fitted with the sort of hilarious hairpiece that one associates with clueless roues and shady accountants, works his signature gruff and impish charm as the duchess's brother, Lord Augustus. Gregory Wooddell and Stephen Patrick Martin provide choice moments, too, as bachelors living the high and dissolute life of seasoned partygoers.
These diverting actors embroider a story revolving around the household of the Windermeres, the wealthy couple whose marriage is severely tested after Lady Windermere (Tessa Auberjonois) discovers the account book her husband (Andrew Long) has been keeping to record his clandestine payments to an older woman, one Mrs. Erlynne (Dixie Carter). Victorian prudery -- and hypocrisy -- erect out of mere appearance the scaffolding of major scandal. The dowagers who delicately nibble the Windermeres' petits fours are only too happy to ravenously devour the news that Lord Windermere has been spending time in Mrs. Erlynne's new digs. Lord Darlington (Matthew Greer) is just as happy, for he has long harbored a passion for the dewy Lady Windermere and wants her to run away with him.
As in "Earnest," a secret about parentage -- all-important to determining one's social status at the time -- animates "Lady Windermere's Fan." In the case of "Fan," however, it is the stifling mores of the Victorian age that Wilde holds up to more blatant ridicule. The characters of "Fan" incessantly debate the issue of what sort of people they imagine to be good and what sort bad, with young Lady Windermere taking the most rigid position of all, that no redemption is possible for those she believes to be wicked. As events will demonstrate, it is she who comes to the most dramatic change of heart.
The distinctions, of course, Wilde finds ludicrous. Or as Darlington puts it: "It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."
Auberjonois and Long are intriguingly mismatched as the Windermeres. It's so right that they somehow appear wrong for each other, she being childish and impetuous, he formal and paternal. (The fan that he gives her comes to seem, on this occasion, a symbol merely of his control over her.) In any event, the devastatingly personal piece of information that Windermere keeps from her ultimately mocks their vows, and the ending Wilde writes for them does not necessarily speak to happily ever after.
It is the strength and warmth of Carter's performance as the enigmatic Mrs. Erlynne that provides the play's steely backbone. Costume designer Robert Perdziola ensures that her entrance in the sumptuous ballroom scene is a grand one. The lords are in cutaways and the ladies wear shades of white; only Mrs. Erlynne shows up draped in red satin -- a scarlet woman indeed. Carter, best known for "Designing Women" on television but also an accomplished stage actress, makes for a mature Mrs. Erlynne, to be sure. Yet she is fully equipped to convey the character's ageless allure as well as her surprising reservoir of idealism.
The episode in which she rescues Lady Windermere from public ruin -- all it takes for such an occurrence in this rigid world is a misplaced fan -- sets a standard for craftsmanship. Carter's expert delivery of the final line gives the scene its sweet sense of completeness.
The production's solidity extends to many actors in minor roles, from Todd Scofield's head butler, Parker, to Helen Hedman's Lady Plymdale to Steve Douglas-Craig's Mr. Hopper. And the designers give the physical world of the play a beautiful finish. Peter West's fading afternoon light for the opening scene lingers in the memory, as do the gowns, as wild and handsome as English gardens, that Perdziola designs for Robinette. Higlett, meanwhile, makes of the Windermeres' reception room a posh fantasia.
In an alcove of the lavish foyer, a bust is visible. Yes, it's Oscar Wilde, keeping watch and, dare we say, looking pretty pleased with himself.
Lady Windermere's Fan, by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Keith Baxter. Composer and sound, Martin Desjardins; movement consultant, Karma Camp. With Hugh Nees, Emery Battis, Cornelia Hart, Anne Stone, Louis Cupp, Patricia Hurley, Ellen Warner and Kate Atkinson. Approximately 2 hours 20 minutes. Through July 31 at Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.