Pound for pound, Dublin’s Gate Theatre might just be the most reliably bankable artistic group Spoleto Festival USA’s ever had on their program. In film terms, nabbing one of their vaunted productions is the equivalent of landing Nicole Kidman or Anthony Hopkins for a big Hollywood feature — box office and critical success is virtually guaranteed.

Since 1990, they’ve been packing the Dock Street for fare like Oscar Wilde’s Salome and Lady Windermere’s Fan; Chekhov’s The Bear and Brian Friel’s Afterplay (along with actors John Hurt and Penelope Wilton); an acclaimed Pride and Prejudice, and even a ghost tale, The Woman in Black.

That alone might explain why Spoleto keeps going back to the 79-year-old company — the Gate’s run of The Constant Wife for the 2007 festival represents the theatre’s sixth appearance here — but it doesn’t fully explain their tremendous appeal to Spoleto audiences. In the lingua franca of your typical Joe Bagofdonuts ticket buyer, the Gate is a no brainer. In The Constant Wife, one can rest assured there’ll be no midgets, no weird, twangy Asian instruments or stylized dancing, no languages more foreign to American ears than the Queen’s English.

The company also brings a major European pedigree to the continental-loving festival audiences (no less of luminaries than Orson Welles and James Mason got their start as actors there), and nor is the Gate burdened, at least in their past Charleston productions, with a reputation for dense experimental or avant-garde theatre. Nosiree, what they do best come Spoleto time — and they do it extraordinarily well — is serve up intelligent, feelgood, laugh-out-loud dramatic comedies and period-costumed classics. In other words, the Gate is accessible, date-friendly, familiar, and, most of all, fun.

Fortunately, they like us as much as we like them.

“I’ve been all over the world,” says Constant Wife director Alan Stanford, “and Spoleto is the most wonderful festival to do. Most of the actors, when you say we’re going to do Spoleto, there’s a sense of joy, they burst into cheers.”

Stanford first came to Spoleto in 1990 with Salome, and he returned for The Woman in Black and Pride and Prejudice. He’s one of the few veterans in this production, though. Actress Susan Fitzgerald (Mrs. Culver) has appeared twice before, in Pride and Prejudice and Lady Windermere’s Fan, “but the rest are Spoleto virgins,” Stanford says, “so it’s going to be an aspect of the Gate that you wouldn’t normally see.”

Originally written and produced by prolific author W. Somerset Maugham in 1927, The Constant Wife‘s been given a mild updating in this production to a 1930s setting. The play concerns Constance Middleton (Paris Jefferson), a married woman of means whose husband, John (Simon Coates), is a philandering goat — personable and pleasant, but duplicitous enough to engage in a poorly hidden affair with Constance’s own best friend, Marie Louise (Jade Yourell).

“They had a passionate relationship when they first met,” explains Stanford, “but that’s long in the past. He now feeds her, houses her, keeps her in clothes, and she gives him nothing in return because he doesn’t want it. Then an opportunity comes into her life, and she realizes that as long as she’s a kept women, she can’t do anything else.”

That opportunity is Bernard (Stephen Brennan) a former suitor of Constance’s who’s returned to London from China, still madly in love with her.

Constance’s solution? Get a job, become financially independent, and do whatever (and whomever) she likes.

“We’ve been thinking about this one for some time,” Stanford acknowledges. “It’s not one you leap at immediately and think, ‘That’s going to really pack them in!’ When it was written in the ’20s, the subject matter was very hot stuff. For example, Constance’s husband says a phrase that was very risqué at the time: ‘A modern wife is fundamentally and mentally a prostitute who doesn’t deliver the goods.’ It’s one of the early examples of the really liberated woman in drama. In a way it’s very, very modern.”

Some Spoleto audiences will inevitably recall the last time they were treated to a feminist-themed play at the Dock Street. Not to worry, Stanford says. The Constant Wife did of course emerge from the period of feminist awakening that followed publication of Ibsen’s A Dolls House in 1879 — which Mabou Mines gave such a memorable revival two years ago — but, he says, “it’s also extremely well written and incredibly funny. So we thought let’s wheel it out and give it a go.” ­ —Patrick Sharbaugh

THE CONSTANT WIFE • $25-$75 • (2 hours 30 min.) • May 24, 25, 29, June 6 at 8 p.m.; May 27, 30, June 1, 3, 5, 8, 10 at 3:30 p.m.; May 27, 28, 30, June 1, 3, 5, 8, 9 at 8:30 p.m. • Dock Street Theatre, 135 Church St. • 579-3100

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