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For those familiar with Bill Bryson’s latest doorstop, At Home, a humorous and highly informative historical account of Anglo-American domestic life, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s An Ideal Husband, arrives at the perfect time. A fascinating complement, this satisfyingly traditional production of gloomily elegant sets and antiquated manners evokes the very lifestyle (at least of the wealthy and/or titled) so well-described in Bryson’s book.
Even more potent is the voice of playwright Oscar Wilde, whose relentless probing and mocking of the Victorian upper classes positively leaps from the boards. For, as Bryson gently points out and Wilde practically yells from the rooftops, Victorian high society was a veritable study in quirks and hypocracies. Yet as quaint as some of it may seem, such interplay between the public and the private person — here in the form of an aspiring politician — is as relevant as ever. ‘
Still, being one of Wilde’s “society comedies,” along with the question and desirability of personal integrity, there is a light-hearted accompaniment of Victorian worries, misunderstandings and even a few hijinks in An Ideal Husband. Director Keith Baxter feels completely at home with the brisk needs of the comedy and the outrages, but seems less comfortable with the cohesion of more earnest moments, which tend to flag. Matters are not helped by the syrupy segue music that only occasionally breaks into something more poignant and interesting.
Baxter’s biggest challenge is Wilde’s politician, Sir Robert Chiltern, perched at the center of the storm. Chiltern, until forced from his comfort zone, has a ready — if bland — phrase for everything. He is by all appearances – and appearances being the key word – an unassailable man of principle, a Victorian ideal. Yet even when matters escalate and everyone around him is getting passionate (or at least passionately witty), Chiltern never quite breaks from his urge to orate rather than emote.
Wilde has made him a hard man to find intriguing and neither the director nor Gregory Woodell in the role get beyond this difficulty. They have not found a way to connect Chiltern to us, and Wooddell projects his man in, not out. Still, square of jaw and persona, Wooddell does give his Chiltern a convincing air of Victorian proprietary. And there is a certain authenticity to his emotionally truncated despair; this was, after all, most definitely not John Boehner’s era.
At the other end of the spectrum, bestowed with the best lines and the play’s wonderful Wildean sensibilities, resides Lord Goring, Chiltern’s effortlessly wealthy and chronically under-employed best friend. Of course, even with the finest of witticisms — and make no mistake, Wilde is the go-to man for elegant grenades — delivery is paramount.
Completely at his ease, Cameron Folmar tosses Goring’s ordinance like he was born to do it and, as such, is the real pleasure in this production. And it is not just that Folmar knows his timing and his tone — he brings a realism to his Goring that makes the character far more than Wilde’s mouthpiece. This is a sentient observer of mankind; invested, warm and compelling even as he lights a fuse. Wilde animated by the talented is the consummate experience of his work.
Arriving in Chiltern’s apparently charmed life like a bolt from the blue is the redoubtable Mrs. Cheveley, a woman determined to secure her future with some well-timed blackmail. Perfect thesis fodder, Cheveley is a fascinating character. At first blush, one imagines Wilde writing her as a man, and only later tinkering her into a woman, for she seems completely unconstrained by Victorian expectations for her gender.
Yet making her a woman also brings a certain tension to the piece, and you wonder how far she will go and to what lengths Chiltern’s circle will go to stop her. Emily Raymond captures Cheveley’s mysterious independence admirably, even if she at times feels more forced than assertive. Although Cheveley, like Chiltern, gives us little of her inner life, Raymond uses her powerful stage presence to bring the kind of cosmic disturbance that suits the mood.
As the painfully pious Lady Chiltern, Wilde’s biggest hypocrite or his most charitable wife (you decide), Rachel Pickup nicely avoids becoming a cliché even as she rails and wrings her hands. As Mabel Chiltern, sister of Chiltern and pursuer of an indifferent Lord Goring, Clair Brownell starts somewhat stiffly but, once warmed, delivers plenty of comedy. Though improbable as either Goring’s father or an Englishman, David Sabin gives his Earl of Caversham some comic oomph and serves as a reliable crowd-pleaser. In the tiny role of Goring’s butler Phipps, Floyd King hits it, as per usual, right out of the park.
Clever, cynical, and unrelenting, An Ideal husband is as relevant today as it was when Wilde was at his fur bed-decked dandiest.