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Stylish Gowns on Display In Oscar Wilde’s "Fan"

Little Theatre of Alexandria Has Haute Couture To Match High Wit

Director Stephen Scott Mazzola paid as much attention to selecting costume designers as to casting leading roles for the new production of Oscar Wilde’s drawing room comedy of manners, "Lady Windermere’s Fan," which opened this week for a four-week run at the Little Theatre of Alexandria.

Kathy Dodson and Chris Macey provide an evening-long parade of delightful couture. While the men’s costumes look like they came from a rental tux shop (but what can you do with the oh-so-proper but blah Victorian era formal wear?), the women appear in one glorious gown after another with the best reserved for the principal characters. Each gown not only lets the audience know something of the time and place of the scenes, they reveal the characters of the ladies who wear them.

The evening begins with Karen V. Lawrence in the title role in a nondescript house gown, which gives no warning of the ensembles to come. But suddenly, there’s a puffed-up contraption for a fabulously haughty Gayle Nichols-Grimes that matches the stuck-up nature of her "Duchess of Berwick," and a delightful near duplicate for the mugging of Meg Greene as her daughter, the distracted, barely dutiful "Lady Agatha."

One needn’t worry that Lawrence, as Mrs. Windermere, wouldn’t get a sartorial spectacle of her own, however. By the end of the evening she’s not only created a complex and intriguing character as a lady who suspects she’s been wronged, she’s resplendent first in a white silk gown in which she presides over the last high-society ball of London’s 1892 season, and then a high necked day gown of subtle pastels in which she receives visitors the next morning.

The really splendid costumes are reserved, however, for the mystery woman who shakes up the lives of the Windermeres and their circle, played with superb presence by Rebecca Lenehan, first in a shockingly red outfit that would make every eye at the ball focus on her even if she weren’t the topic of the town’s hottest gossip of the moment and, later, after we’ve learned her secret and come to appreciate her virtues, in a creme and coffee confection.

The performances of the men are in some contrast to the colorful women but one stands out as the strength of the evening, that of Adam Downs as a lord in love with Mrs. Windermere who is emboldened to hope for a chance for her affection by the rumors of scandal that might be expected to break up her happy home. It is a role that sounds like it would be a thankless portrayal of a villainous lecher but with Wilde’s verbal wit, Downs brings the character to life letting the complexity of the internal struggle between hope and despair, duty and desire come through without once breaking the surface veneer of a gentleman.

Other male roles get suitable performances from the likes of Lars Klores who lays on the stiff upper class veneer just a bit too thick, Peter Laager whose befuddlement over the ways of society’s women is a delight and Seth Vaughan whose booming voice almost overwhelms a few scenes although the lines Wilde gave his character are certainly worth savoring.

The play was Oscar Wilde’s first big hit in what was a lamentably brief but brilliant career cut short by scandal. Last year, the Little Theatre mounted a superb production of the fascinating exploration into his downfall, "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde." In that production Adam Downs played Wilde’s lover, the young man whose father brought suit and destroyed the reputation, not to mention the life, of the playwright.

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Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.