The preshow music—Gilbert and Sullivan—sets the tone for Taproot Theatre’s production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan: a bit stylized, with just a light scent of campy parody wafting through the drawing room. Though his 1891 dramedy boasts a solid script, it’s not one of Wilde’s more popular plays, possibly because so many of its roles seem like half-realized anticipations of characters he fleshed out more richly later on in his career. The upright and sententious Lady Windermere was reshaped into the more sympathetic and moving Lady Chiltern in An Ideal Husband, while the imperious Duchess of Berwick, though she has dozens of great lines, became immortal only when reborn as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Even so, Taproot’s cast does a superb job—the pacing is snappy but not hectic, the serious moments make an impact, and the play’s likely never been funnier.
Subversively for his time, Wilde demonstrates the pitfalls of moral implacability: When high-minded young socialite Lady Windermere finds herself on the brink of scandal after a moment of weakness, she at first haughtily resists the help of Mrs. Erlynne, a woman with a past whom she suspects of having an affair with her husband (and whom she spends Act 2 insulting). But Mrs. E. turns out to be the only one who can save her reputation after an incident involving Lady W.’s titular accessory.
As Lady W., Maya Burton is a chirpy delight, adding a dash of send-up to her portrayal to take the edge off a character who, on the page, may try the reader’s patience. Clad in flaming persimmon, Nikki Visel makes a splendid entrance as Mrs. Erlynne, a sort of Victorian “bad mom,” dryly and disarmingly unsentimental. (“If a woman really repents, she has to go to a bad dressmaker, otherwise no one believes in her.”) It is she who bears the burden of Wilde’s melodrama, and with a light touch and plenty of heart Visel sticks the landing on every line. (No one who knows the story of Wilde’s own downfall could fail to shudder at the eerie foreshadowing he put into Mrs. E.’s mouth—the Act 3 speech opening with “You don’t know what it is to fall into the pit—to be despised, mocked, abandoned … ”) Rebecca M. Davis is the orotund Duchess, able to make even throwaway non sequiturs like “She is so fond of photographs of Switzerland” hilarious.
Just as gentlemen’s white tie makes a perfect neutral wallpaper for ladies’ couture gowns, the men in this cast provide a finely drawn backdrop for these juicy women’s parts. In particular, Richard Nguyen Sloniker is meticulously poised as Lord Windermere, Conner Neddersen brittle and Wodehouse-ian as Cecil Graham, and Tyler Trerise uncommonly smooth as the epigram-spouting cad Lord Darlington, the man who lures Lady W. almost off the cliff. All in all it’s a fresh, persuasive, and welcome production of a rarity. (The only remaining Wilde comedy that Taproot hasn’t staged is A Woman of No Importance, but I bet—and hope—it’s coming soon.)