Trib Preview: Slightly updated ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ keeps Oscar Wilde at its heart
by Alice Carter
Director Alan Stanford believes that any great play constantly reinvents itself.
Sometimes it does it on its own as audiences continue to find new truths in new productions of classics, such as “Hamlet” or “King Lear.”
At other times, those reinventions are inspired by the director’s vision.
As director of the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” Stanford has moved Oscar Wilde’s satire from its original Victorian London setting to the post-World War II London of 1947.
It’s still set in the upper reaches of British society where trouble begins when the young Lady Windermere discovers that her husband has been seen spending a great deal of time with — and even more money on — a woman with a questionable reputation. When confronted, he not only refuses to discuss his relationship with Mrs. Erlynne, he insists that his wife invite the woman to a ball they are hosting that evening.
This is the third time Stanford has directed “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” Each time he has set it in 1947.
“When you look at a play like this in its Victorian setting, it looks a little like a museum piece,” Stanford says. “Wilde was a 20th-century playwright. He died before the 20th century, but he wrote modern plays.”
Stanford deliberately chose 1947, which he calls “a time of great optimism.”
“In 1947, the language of Wilde is still right,” he says. “In 1947, the aristocracy were still as closed a society as they were in 1890. It was a village life, where all the characters know one another.”
By 1948 and ’49, Stanford believes, society had begun to move into the less structured world of the 1950s.
Fast-forwarding the action by some 50 years allows the play to retain Wilde’s language and wit while making it more accessible to contemporary audiences. The change in eras will be most noticeable in the sets and costumes, he says, not the script.
“I made a few tiny changes to restore the rhythms. Now, it’s much more fluid. I would certainly not attempt to modify the words of Oscar Wilde,” Stanford says.
He did change one pair of words to clarify their political meaning: Tories and Radicals are now referred to as liberals and conservatives.
Like Wilde’s other plays, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is witty, clever and often funny. The humor may cause some to miss the point that Wilde was a writer of Irish satire, not English comedy.
“He exposes their frailties rather than ridicules them,” Stanford says.
“Lady Windermere’s Fan,” he says, “is about the social agenda, about class obsession, about fear. … We believe honesty and truth are best, but (the play) demonstrates that truth is the most dangerous thing on the planet and should be used with care.”
Leo Marks, who plays Lord Windermere, compares Wilde’s play to those of Chekhov. “It’s not fluffy. It’s meaty, and it’s got more moments of grit and conflict and crisis than you imagine,” Marks says.
“It’s about what’s right and what’s wrong. … Nobody is a villain and nobody is a knight in shining armor,” says Nikki Doukas, who plays Mrs. Erlynne. She says it has become one of her favorite roles.
“She is so complicated and the most honest and devious woman you can imagine — she’s so strong, so smart,” Doukas says. “Very seldom do you get to play that particular (type of) woman.”
Ultimately, Stanford says, Wilde was writing about the competition between absolute ideals and the real world of ambiguity.
“Life is not black or white, but shades of gray,” Stanford says.
“And you can love people who are impure and complex,” Marks adds.
“Because you are yourself,” Doukas says.