Wry Infidelity 

Barksdale's "The Constant Wife" offers consistent surprises.

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In his 1926 play, "The Constant Wife," W. Somerset Maugham created one of theater's truly unforgettable female characters.

Constance Middleton appears to be nothing more than the charming wife of a well-to-do British surgeon. Ensconced in her impeccably appointed London manse, she seems reconciled to a life of mildly amusing repartee and shopping. But over the course of the play's three acts (and two intermissions), her keen insight, frank intelligence and devilish cleverness are all revealed in an escalating series of surprises.

In the Barksdale Theatre's fine production (with an exceptional set design by Kimberly H. Parkin), Liz Mamana plays Constance with an aura of indulgent good nature, as if she empathizes with the lesser mortals around her and perhaps pities them a bit as well. Her attitude makes the play's twists that much more delicious.

The action begins with Constance's mother (Kelly Kennedy) and little sister, Martha (Jen Meharg), debating whether to tell her that her husband of 15 years, John (Steve Perigard), has been having an affair with her best friend, Mary-Louise (Laine Satterfield). At the same time, Constance is expecting the arrival of a former suitor, Bernard (Larry Cook), who still carries a flaming passion for her. She diligently deflects innuendoes from her family that her husband is less than perfect, and she gently rebuffs Bernard's declarations of enduring affection. It wouldn't be sporting to give away much more but, by the end of the evening, these situations have played out in ways that defy expectations.

Perigard also directed this production (with some assistance from artistic director Bruce Miller), and he surrounds his leading lady with an exceptional supporting cast. Cook, in particular, has a deft comic touch, able to evoke laughter with as little as a small step to one side. Kennedy and Meharg dig into their characters with gusto, trading barbs with aplomb, and Satterfield is a convincingly simple-minded weasel of a friend.

But mostly, this is Mamana's show, and she is impressive. Even so, Constance is a character that you grow to appreciate rather than to love. The same can be said for the play as a whole: While dealing in matters of the heart, it primarily appeals to the intellect. As a result, you may leave the theater impressed by Maugham's witty dialogue but probably not moved by it. Still, "The Constant Wife" portrays a remarkable woman who, 80 years after she was created, still has the capacity to confound a modern audience. S

"The Constant Wife" plays at the Barksdale Theatre at the Shops at Willow Lawn Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. with 2 p.m. matinees on Wednesday and Sunday until Oct. 29. Tickets are $34-$38. Call 282-2620 for details.

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