Lady Windermere's Fan

Austin Playhouse's take on this Oscar Wilde treat is straightforward and buoyed by terrific performances

Charmed, I'm sure: Lady Windermere (Claire Ludwig) gets a personal greeting from Lord Darlington (Jason Newman).
Charmed, I'm sure: Lady Windermere (Claire Ludwig) gets a personal greeting from Lord Darlington (Jason Newman). (Courtesy of Christopher Loveless)

Lady Windermere's Fan

Austin Playhouse at Highland Mall, 6001 Airport, 476-0084
Through April 7
Running time: 2 hr., 10 min.

As I sidestepped to my seat in Austin Playhouse's intimate Highland Mall theatre, I overheard another audience member say what I was thinking: "My, she's got a mighty big fan! If I'd written this play, I'd have called it Lady Windermere's Fan, too!" Indeed, the intention behind the proscenium-length fan serving as backdrop to Oscar Wilde's comedy of marriage was hard to miss. I might have rolled my eyes. But after Act II's seamless set change, I realized that I'd rolled too soon.

As gossip about the suspicious Mrs. Erlynne disintegrates Lady Windermere's faith in her husband's fidelity, the fan – an enlarged version of the birthday present Lord W gives his wife – breaks into pieces, too. These segments become columns that create the illusion of dark corners in a grand ballroom for Lady W's ill-fated birthday ball. After intermission, the set transforms into the home of a scandalous would-be lover, and, by the final act, a bubbly finale tinged with sharp Wildean satire, the fan is reassembled, and all is (mostly) well. Just as director Lara Toner's scenic design represents the play, it also encapsulates the production: Austin Playhouse's Windermere is straightforward and symmetrical, and though it occasionally feels overly literal, the cast's terrific performances make for an enjoyable evening.

Petite powerhouse Claire Ludwig, who was nominated for a 2012 Austin Critics Table Award for a similar Playhouse role (Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View), again dazzles with a nuanced take on Lady Windermere. Not only is she lovely to look at, but Ludwig also nails the arc from carefree housewife to jealous wreck and back again. She and Suzanne Balling are excellently well-cast (for reasons I'll omit, lest I spoil the plot twist), and Balling should add her turn as Mrs. Erlynne to the top of her growing list of strong performances. She expertly handles her character's extremes, from society-syrupy to utterly sincere. Also notable is Jason Newman as a nervous yet dapper Lord Darlington. He comes closest, I think, to Wilde's charming smugness, with Oscarisms such as, "It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious." Michael Stuart wins the audience over with his adorably awkward Lord Augustus, and Ben Wolfe is a pleasant surprise as the dandy Cecil Graham (we usually see him play stoic and masculine).

The production has minor flaws: Some of Buffy Manners' costumes are graceful, but others are mismatched; razor-edge humor occasionally gets lost in overacting; and the storefront's air-conditioner drowns out Bryan Schneider's sound. This Lady Windermere's Fan feels more like a cupcake than a petit four: the icing is a little rough around the edges. But the cake is still delicious.

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Lady Windermere's Fan, Austin theatre, Austin Playhouse, Lara Toner, Claire Ludwig, Suzanne Balling, Jason Newman, Michael Stuart, Ben Wolfe, Buffy Manners, Bryan Schneider

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