Morality and seduction, prudery and license, loyalty and betrayal are a few of the dichotomies in the four major comedies of Oscar Wilde, produced in the dazzling years (1892-95) before he was crushed with a prosecution for homosexuality.
Among these, "Lady Windermere's Fan" was the first, and although it doesn't measure up to "An Ideal Husband" or the wonderful "The Importance of Being Earnest," it shares the same witty polish -- and the same conflicts between conventional and real morality that soon destroyed Wilde.
Now Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre invokes both parts of its name by staging "Windermere," completing its tour of Wilde's four major comedies (plus several of his other plays). The result is a polished, even elegant entertainment with a touching heart. This heart is implicit in Wilde, where a hint of impending personal tragedy sharpens the gay (in both senses) humor and undercurrent of moral discontent with the hypocrisy of conventional society.
As with all three of the successful comedies before "Earnest," "Windermere" is at heart a melodrama. ("Earnest" mocks melodrama, turning it on its head.) The central conflict is within an inexperienced woman who has to learn that the world is more complex than her black-and-white morality allows.
Lady Windermere is celebrating her 21st birthday with a late evening ball. Her husband of two years asks her to invite a Mrs. Erlynne, a newcomer to London with an unsavory reputation whom he has been visiting regularly and supplying with money. She refuses, but Mrs. Erlynne arrives anyway and charms all the guests.
Lady Windermere's conviction that her husband has been unfaithful opens her up to the proposals of the assiduous Lord Darlington. But at the crucial moment, she is saved from becoming a social outcast by an unexpected sacrifice. In the ironic endgame, only Mrs. Erlynne and Lord Windermere know one thing, and only she and Lady Windermere know another.
The audience, of course, knows it all. But the ultimate ending deftly sidesteps what could have been fully tragic.
At the center is the Mrs. Erlynne of Nike Doukas., who has had other juicy roles at PICT in Chekhov, Moliere and Pinter, as well as playing the similar "bad woman" in "Ideal Husband." But she has never had to carry a play's emotional heart all alone, as here, and she does it with a skilled mix of emotion and wit.
Otherwise, "Windermere" has a rather cold heart, showing more affection for its polished aphorisms than for the people who coin them.
Take the Windermeres, played by Jodi Gage and Leo Marks, who are defined more by what they don't know than by what they do. Lady Windermere is caught between appealing innocence and unpleasant rectitude. In addition, Ms. Gage's voice shows strain. But ultimately her character's good nature wins us over.
Lord Windermere is a paternalistic if kindly prig, a product of his time who doesn't know better. But of course Mr. Marks, a skilled actor, plays him very well, and we forgive him in the end.
Which raises the interesting issue of the times. Wilde set the play in his own day, but Joan Markert's elaborate costumes mark the times as the 1930s or 1940s. The absence of any comment on the war might suggest the former, but the year 1947 is specified in a director's note at the back of the program. (There is, however, no note in the usual place as to the year or as to when and where each scene is set, an odd omission.)
Moving the play forward 50 years is the doing of director and adaptor (and PICT's interim producing artistic director) Alan Stanford. As far as I can tell, he has snipped and altered little. But only a few oddities stand out. Would 2,500 pounds be a sufficient annual settlement? And would the moral code be so inflexible in 1947? But we allow these shifts with Shakespeare, so why not Wilde?
The supporting roles are more fun than the leads. Martin Giles plays a buffoonish but very likable lord, and Helena Ruoti one of those imperious, opinionated duchesses (think Lady Bracknell). John DeMita is the seductive Lord Darlington, who you may think will be the wit-cracking Oscar Wilde-like role, but that honor goes to Mr. Cecil Graham, played with properly insufferable conceit by Casey Jordan.
James FitzGerald stands out among the witty rich. Luke Halferty has a juicy gem as a wife-hunting Australian, with Heidi Friese as his cute target (or is she really the hunter?). It's a large and capable cast of 17; even the butler is played by David Whalen.
Michael Thomas Assad's handsome settings, richly lit by Cat Wilson, live up to the occasion, cleverly morphing from the Windermeres' morning room to drawing room (complete with grand staircase), thence to Lord Darlington's bachelor pad and back to where it began. These set changes are quite rightly done before our eyes.
Still, the visual appeal, hypocrisy-poking melodrama and Mrs. Erlynne's moral complexities notwithstanding, it is Wilde's wit that makes the play. Many of his aphorisms are famous:
"A man who moralizes is usually a hypocrite, and a woman who moralizes is invariably plain."
"My own business always bores me to death. I prefer other people's."
"History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality."
And so on, occasionally touching on the truly moving, both for Wilde and ourselves: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.