Double standards exposed, deposed in PaperHouse’s ‘Woman’

Chester Shepherd and Katy Shepherd work on their relationship in “A Woman of No Importance” at PaperHouse Theatre.
Chester Shepherd and Katy Shepherd work on their relationship in “A Woman of No Importance” at PaperHouse Theatre. George Hendricks Photography

PaperHouse Theatre has transformed a turn-of-the-20th-century comedy of manners into a relevant 21st-century event. Oscar Wilde’s “A Woman of No Importance” is a visceral pleasure.

A sellout opening night audience of 30 people was treated to a lemony beverage before being seated on the lawn in front of FROCK Shop on Central Avenue. Meanwhile, actors convened on the porch at Lady Hunstanton’s garden party.

Costumer Caroline Cook-Frers, who owns FROCK Shop, demonstrated her eye for vintage style with an array of splendid costumes, featuring splashes of magenta and tangerine. Party guests wore elegant gowns, stately suits, and gloves ranging from silk to netting to lace.

The costumes set the mood and provided ample distraction during moments when traffic overtook dialogue. Those moments were few yet served as an urban reminder that theater is a living product, affected and enhanced by its surroundings.

“A Woman of No Importance” is less of a plot-driven piece than a repository for Wilde’s observations about English society in the 1890s. The characters are maids and matrons of high standing, sassy and prudish. Among them is a young American feminist (before such a word existed) and one shamed woman, whose son is eager to find his place in a world that has refused his mother.

The hostess is played by majestic Pam Coble Coffman. Brianna Susan Smith plays know-it-all Lady Caroline Pontefract with a perfect kind of arrogance. Chaz Pofahl is her husband, who escapes her constant carping by slipping away with other women.

What plot there is centers upon smarmy Lord Illingworth (Grant Watkins), a self-satisfied charmer and cad who has the lion’s share of pithy lines. He has hired a new secretary, Gerald Arbuthnot (Chester Shepherd), to whom he is related –though he is unaware of how. Gerald’s mother, the most Christian person in the crowd, is played by Frances Dell Bendert. She’s an anguished outcast, and the plot turns on the other characters’ reactions to her.

The play is rich in one-liners that define the roles of men, woman, and class. Included are these beliefs: The ideal husband talks to women as though they are goddesses but treats them as though they are children. Women become like their mothers.

A typical woman talks sentimentally but is selfish inside. Men marry because they are tired; women marry because they are curious. Women should think in moderation. Women love men for their defects.

It’s enough to make you spit, but it is also refreshing in a politically incorrect sort of way. Women who get pregnant are ostracized for life. Men who get them pregnant are free to pretend it didn’t happen.

Other observations remind the audience how far we have come, for better or for worse. In the 1890s, bearing a child out of wedlock was morally unacceptable, but the scorning of single mothers is no longer a conventional reaction.

Between scenes, the audience is escorted to various rooms of the exquisite home and offered crustless sandwiches and tiny lemon tarts. Netflix will wait. Live theater will not.

‘A Woman of No Importance’

PaperHouse Theatre does Oscar Wilde’s comedy about the eternal war between the sexes.

WHEN: Through June 14 at 8 p.m. Friday-Sunday.

WHERE: FROCK Shop, 901 Central Ave.

TICKETS: $30, including sips and nibbles.

DETAILS: 704-659-3638 or paperhousetheatre.com.