Good is good, but bad is better in “Lady Windermere's Fan.”
Oscar Wilde's incisive 1892 comedy, which gave the playwright his first theatrical success, earns its laughs with every sly observance and witty barb about the roles of men and women in Victorian England. But under the humor, Wilde already had his eye on the damage those roles can inflict on individuals.
The new California Shakespeare Theater production, directed by Christopher Liam Moore, strikes a welcome balance between the play's two extremes. Moore's production takes a while to achieve its devastating blend of comedy and social commentary, but when it does, it's a potent reminder of the hazards of hypocrisy.
Wilde introduces his themes in the first scene, as the title character, Lady Margaret Windermere, learns that her husband has been spending a lot of time with the very unmarried Mrs. Erlynne.
All of London is scandalized, and everyone seems to have advice for Margaret, whose status as a “good” wife and mother doesn't offer her much in the way of options.
Things aren't exactly what they seem, of course. In successive scenes — a soiree given by Margaret, at which Mrs. Erlynne makes an unwelcome appearance, and a late-night convergence at the home of Lord Darlington, who harbors a hidden passion of his own — the play's buried secrets come out.
Moore gives the play an eminently theatrical staging on Annie Smart's elegant set, with lighting by York Kennedy, costumes by Meg Neville and sound by Will McCandless.
The cast isn't ideal. As Margaret, Emily Kitchens spends a lot of time talking about misery and rage, but misses a credible depth of emotion.
Stacy Ross imparts greater dimension to the misunderstood Mrs. Erlynne, and Aldo Billingslea wins sympathy for the rigid Lord Windermere. Nick Gabriel raises the temperature as Darlington.
The comic side is handled with finesse. Danny Scheie, who can get a laugh just by saying “Switzerland,” does a brilliant double turn as the waspish Duchess of Berwick and the antique Lady Jedburgh.
L. Peter Callender, James Carpenter and Dan Clegg are spot-on as upper-crust men, and Rami Margron is delightful as the dim-bulb Agatha.
With performances this funny, it's tempting to see the play merely as lighthearted comedy — until you remember what the social mores of the era did to Wilde himself. Then it all starts to feel deadly serious.
Lady Windermere's Fan
Presented by the California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. most Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 8
Tickets: $20 to $72
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org