"Lady Windermere's Fan," Oscar Wilde's first successful play, has less to do with telling a story than with providing a vehicle for Wilde's barbed witticisms, aphorisms and epigrams about social conventions. Many of Wilde's observations remain pungent: One character defines a cynic as "a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." Another remarks, "I can resist anything but temptation." And -- a personal favorite -- "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."
Regrettably, the temptation for actors is to let these observations roll off the tongue and then pose for a moment to let them sink in. There's a lot of that in Prince George's Little Theatre's ambitious production of "Lady Windermere's Fan," now onstage with mixed results at the Publick Playhouse in Cheverly.
Wilde later displayed more interest in creating three-dimensional characters, but in this 1892 confection his creations are mostly stereotypes of Victorian London's high society. Wilde delights in exposing these characters as moral failures and hypocrites, figuratively taking away the decorative fans used to conceal both faces and reality. It's difficult for modern actors to achieve the proper attitude of self-indulgent sophistication, bordering on the dissolute, that this work requires, and director Norma R. Ozur's cast members unevenly negotiate their way through Wilde's challenging wordplay, alternating flashes of brilliance with flat recitations.
Lady Windermere (Emily Brite) is more girl than woman at age 21, but she faces a grown-up crisis when she discovers that her husband, Lord Windermere (Nick Beschen), has been spending time with Mrs. Erlynne (Millie Ferrara), a mysterious woman with a questionable reputation. What's more, the Lord's checkbook shows large sums of money have been transferred to Mrs. Erlynne. Feeling betrayed, particularly when her husband insists on allowing Mrs. Erlynne to attend a party at their home, Lady Windermere strikes back by deciding to run off with the dandy who has been wooing her, Lord Darlington (Stephen Cox). But before old relationships can be severed or new ones consummated, Mrs. Erlynne decides to set matters straight, revealing old secrets as she does.
Ferrara dominates this production. Her consummate skill at fleshing out the role of Mrs. Erlynne sets a standard that only a few members of the large cast can get near. With her flinty voice and slightly caustic attitude, Ferrara gives Mrs. Erlynne a poise that carries her through scenes of conniving as well as heartfelt exchanges.
As Lord Windermere, Beschen is almost her match, although his part allows for less flash. Beschen offers a complex portrait of a good but conflicted man. As Darlington, Cox is a suitable stand-in for Wilde, his languid hedonism making his betrayal seem almost innocent. Carol Randolph is delightful as the Duchess of Berwick, creating a voice that seems to bustle as much as the rest of her as she sweeps through drawing rooms.
The costumes designed by Hopi Auerbach, Heather Jackson and Lois Rapp are sumptuously gorgeous, adding considerably to the sense of pampered, empty lives. But Daniel Lavanga's drawing rooms are sterile, lacking the ornate trappings of the Victorian era. And they are apparently not designed for rapid scene changes, which Ozur, unfortunately, deals with at one point by having a tone-deaf cast member step before the curtain to try to interest the audience in singing period songs. It's a cringe-making moment. It's an uncomfortable experience, but, as Wilde has a character state, "Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes."
"Lady Windermere's Fan" continues through Oct. 23, performed by Prince George's Little Theatre at the Publick Playhouse, 5445 Landover Road, Cheverly. Performances on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. For reservations, call the box office at 301-277-1710; for more information, go to www.pglt.org.