Gossip keeps tongues wagging and hearts fluttering in "Lady Windermere's Fan."
Scandal is the engine that drives Oscar Wilde's glittering comedy of bad manners, which is subtitled "A Play About a Good Woman." The master of epigrammatic wit here uses his scalpel-sharp barbs to deconstruct the hypocrisy of Victorian-era London, where women were treated like frilly playthings to be used and discarded, much like a fan.
Christopher Liam Moore, an Ashland veteran, gives "Windermere" an effervescent staging at Cal Shakes. This sparkling revival, which runs through Sept. 8, revels in the playwright's effortless elan and nails his trenchant sense of social criticism. Wilde, who was famously undone by his sexuality, laces the well-made play with a longing for freedom that's both delicious and subversive.
While far less often revived than his ever-popular "The Importance of Being Earnest," "Windermere" is a titillating peek into the mores of upper crust society. Fans, for instance, are used as weapons of seduction in drawing room liaisons.
The director wisely doesn't let the elegance of the language detract from the heartfelt conflict of the play, the war between following your gut and following the rules. If there are times the revival could use a touch more comic zing, the melodrama is elegantly rendered, and the climactic scenes cut close to the bone.
In truth Lady Windermere (Emily Kitchens) has little use for a fan in this world, because she has no guile. An ingenue carved in porcelain and lace, she believes a woman's reputation is her most prized possession. She pays little attention to the flirtation of Lord Darlington, (Nick Gabriel) because she assumes his intentions must be honorable. She assumes all men behave as unimpeachably as they expect women to. Alas, on the eve of her 21st birthday, she suspects otherwise.
No sooner does she turn of age than she learns her seemingly adoring husband (Aldo Billingslea) has been having clandestine meetings with a mysterious older woman, Mrs. Erlynne (a magnetic Stacy Ross). She knows very little about her rival except that she seems to have a rare sense of gravity in a world of fluttering and frills. There's also no doubt that Erlynne has every man with a pulse twisted around her little finger, from the foolish Lord Augustus (James Carpenter) and the foppish Cecil Graham (Dan Clegg) to the fatalistic Mr. Dumby (L. Peter Callendar).
The other woman even has the temerity to crash Windermere's birthday party and schmooze the most prim and proper of the guests, including the imposing Duchess of Berwick (Danny Scheie).
Scheie once again displays his genius for scathing repartee as the wonderfully catty duchess, a dowager matron from the Bracknell mold. The actor eschews camp and plays the part straight to great effect. His sly comic timing and his instinct for Wilde's dry wit are keen indeed. Berwick is the soul of pragmatism when it comes to philandering husbands: "Crying is the refuge of plain women but the ruin of pretty ones."
Unfortunately, the duchess only appears a few times in the play, and Scheie's finesse with bon mots has a tendency to make the rest of the ensemble seem lackluster.
Make no mistake: It's an enormously gifted cast of Bay Area veterans, but the comic pacing feels a tad off. That's a pity, because "Windermere" showcases many of Wilde's most famous lines. They deserve to shine as brightly as the chandeliers in Annie Smart's well-appointed set, a lavender dream punctuated by shimmering chandeliers.
Still, there's no denying the deep emotional resonance here, particularly the notes of tragedy that Ross captures as the woman who can't live down her checkered past. She has learned the hard way that there is nothing more brutal than civilized society. As Wilde puts it: "We all live in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars."
'Lady windermere's fan'
by Oscar Wilde
Through: Sept. 8
100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $20-$72, 510-548-9666, www.calshakes.org