When Anne Easter Smith watches this weekend’s production at the Actors Studio in Newburyport, no doubt, she’ll be keeping an eye on all the actors — after all she’s the director — but there’s likely one role in particular that may make her smile a little bigger.
Smith is directing the black box studio’s production of Oscar Wilde’s play, “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” tomorrow and Saturday. The comedy, which satirizes Victorian society and their morals of marriage, was first produced in 1892 in London. “Lady Windmere’s Fan” tells the tale of a woman who discovers that her husband may be having an affair. She confronts him, but he instead invites the other woman, Mrs. Erlynne, to his wife’s birthday. Angered by his unfaithfulness, Lady Windermere leaves her husband for another man.
Newburyport’s Easter Smith, a UK native, was approached by Actors Studio owner Marc Clopton earlier this fall and asked to direct a performance in the new Classics Series; he thought she would be a good fit for a play by Wilde. And for Easter Smith, working on the play also allows her a chance to explore a character that her own mother once performed for audiences.
Her mother, Peggy Easter, trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, Easter Smith said.
“My father, who had studied voice at the Guildhall School of Music, joined the British Army and worked in Churchill’s War Office while my mother and sister were evacuated to the country,” Easter Smith said. “I was born two weeks after D-day, the operation for which my father was in charge of movement control. He was sent, with his family, to Germany after the war; and while based in Hamburg, my mother discovered the Rhine Army Theatre Club was looking for volunteers to perform at all the British Army camps stationed in Germany. With her training at one of the premier acting schools in England, (she) was immediately snapped up and took leading-lady roles for a couple of years. Mrs. Erlynne in ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ was a favorite role of hers.”
So, when Easter Smith talked with Clopton, she eagerly embraced the opportunity to delve into the play that her mother had such a fondness for. This is the author’s first time directing a show at the Actors Studio. Easter Smith is the author of several historical novels.
“Having the family history with ‘Lady Windermere’ and having the only review and photographic souvenir of my mother’s short-lived acting career, I leaped at the chance to study the play and choose my own cast,” she wrote in an email. “There is a wealth of talent in this community and I am so lucky that many of my first ‘asks’ for roles were able to accept. With only six rehearsals, I needed experienced actors who would run with their characters while I applied the mechanics of moving 11 of them around the small stage.”
Wilde’s play is being performed as a staged reading, meaning the actors can remain seated and use scripts. Typically, there are few props or sets. The production is the latest in the theater’s new Classics Series, in which actors present works by celebrated playwrights in staged reading form.
“The intention is to present great plays that would otherwise be too costly to present and to keep the ticket prices reasonable,” Clopton wrote. “These plays are different from the new plays and mainstream plays we usually produce, so they expand our scope as a presenter.
“I hope audiences will feel excited to see a play by Oscar Wilde and either discover him as a writer or reintroduce themselves to him,” he added.
The play’s underlying message continues to ring as true today as it did when it was written, Clopton said.
“This is a play that lives as vitally in 2012 as it did in 1894,” he wrote in an email. “The play is about our need for community and the chance to belong. It is also about the the false values we create and how they work against us.”
As part of the rehearsals, Easter Smith met with the actress playing the role of Mrs. Erlynne.
“Mrs. Erlynne is a challenging role, and Kari Cretella Nickou and I have met over lunch to discuss the complicated character. She must be hard-edged, desperate, vulnerable and ambitious, as well as reveal a love for her child, unaware of this society cast-off’s identity. She is a fallen woman and the foil to Lady Windermere’s gentle, puritanical nature,” Easter Smith said.
In addition to Cretella Nickou, the cast includes Victor Atkins, Alan Huisman, Gloria Papert, Terry Blanchard, Leigh Ardrey, Catherine Colby, Marc Clopton, Marc St. Pierre, Tim Gurczak and Christin Clohosey.
Meanwhile, Clopton is excited for the chance to introduce an audience to Wilde’s works. Also, by performing it as a staged reading, it allows the audience a chance to create their own sets and props in their minds.
“For people who are experiencing a staged reading for the first time, they often say at first it seems odd, but soon they become delighted with how their imagination fills in the details,” he said. “So we are on a mission to expose people to this delightful form of theater.”
IF YOU GO
What: A staged reading of Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan”
When: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: The Actors Studio, 50 Water St., the Tannery, Mill 1, Suite 5, Newburyport
Tickets: $10. To make reservations, call 978-465-1229 or go online to MKTix.com.