LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN, Northlight Theatre. “Scandal,” says a character in this 1892 Oscar Wilde gem, “is gossip made tedious by morality.” Turning morality on its head, Wilde most untediously demonstrates that “good” people commit great wrongs in the name of virtue, while “bad” people are capable of deep devotion and self-sacrifice (a lesson tragically proved by Wilde’s own downfall three years later).
Combining epigrammatic social satire and suspenseful romantic drama, Lady Windermere’s Fan concerns a scandal involving wealthy Lord Windermere, his puritanical young wife, and a worldly divorcee with whom Windermere is supposedly sleeping. The truth is more complex. Suffice it to say that everything turns out happily, but only after deep emotional wounds have been inflicted by and on people desperate to flourish in a hypocritical society ruled by a sexual double standard. Time has eroded the prejudices that governed Wilde’s world, but the play still speaks to a public that both judges and delights in the foibles of the rich and notable.
Under William Brown’s direction, Carey Cannon as naive Lady Windermere and Tracy Michelle Arnold as her presumed rival deliver an onstage clash that crackles beneath their refined speeches. Arnold, who frequently evokes a mixture of Katharine Hepburn and Maggie Smith, is especially captivating. This is a great play in a very good production.