Oscar Wilde wrote “An Ideal Husband” in 1895 at the height of his creative power and celebrity, and just before his arrest for “gross indecency” led to his personal humiliation and social ruin. That's especially ironic because this play is about the capacity to forgive those whom we are closest to for failures of judgment and character. Of course, it is also a play about the timelessly charming and brilliantly witty mind of Oscar Wilde.
Director Karen Lund brings to this production the perfect blend of theatrical style and authentic characterization to make it feel both period specific and strikingly contemporary. Especially in an election season where we see political figures fall from grace on an almost daily basis for private behavior that most likely should have never become public business, it is most intriguing to spend time inside these people's homes and inside their personal relationships. A veteran cast and solid acting technique create an evening which is bright and amusing while also satisfying us with just enough dramatic depth to make it feel substantial.
Sir Robert Chiltern is an ambitious politician who appears to his wife, Lady Chiltern to also be a “perfect” gentleman and an “ideal” husband. With the arrival of Mrs. Chevely, an old school rival of Lady Chiltern, who knows something about an early ethical compromise Sir Robert made, and thinks she knows exactly how to use that knowledge for her own gain, we are in the midst of blackmail, scandal and disgrace. Many complications and comic situations lead to revelations which both free Sir Robert from his secret and require his wife to evaluate exactly how much anyone can expect another to be perfect, and how forgiveness of fault can bring strength to a marriage.
For Sir Robert’s reprobate friend, the privileged and pointless Lord Goring, he will also learn to manage the knowledge of other’s sins with the recognition of his own, and when to act out of pure motives rather than perceived advantage. Although the resolution is quite a happy ending and perhaps a bit too neat for modern audiences, it feels perfectly appropriate within this neatly structured society.
Ryan Childers plays Sir Robert with just the right balance of substance and untested character. I especially liked the way he made his long passed act of corruption feel like it belonged to another person, another life, and yet still fully possessed its consequences. Candace Vance balanced the role of Lady Chiltern with just the right amount of idealism and sympathy, high expectation and humane acceptance. Aaron Lamb brought great vitality to the role of Lord Goring, speaking many of the lines that most clearly felt like they were Wilde’s own voice and acting as the wise fool most critically and cleverly protecting the throne. Nikki Visel played the treacherous Mrs. Chevely with a deliciously arch aggression that made her the fulcrum for the shifting balances of power (and truth) throughout the play.
The remainder of the cast was uniformly skillful, finished and effective, with Nolan Palmer especially accomplished as Goring’s unimpressed and inflexible father, Lord Caversham. Because the production was so well-balanced the ensemble always felt like the world of the play and never like an assemblage of actors in performance.
This production also featured an extremely handsome physical production, with an attractive and rich scenic design by Mark Lund and spectacular costumes by Nanette Acosta. That overall design did a great deal to assure us that we were among the very rich, the very privileged and the very insulated British upper-class.
“An Ideal Husband” is the final production of Taproot’s 2011 Season and it puts an impressive flourish at the end of their usual, high quality signature. When it is done with style and technique and real understanding of his insight into the character of the late 19th Century, Oscar Wilde is still as fresh and delightful as ever. There was nothing tired or antiquated about this production at all, and those amusing and biting insights into human nature and our judgment of one another are always worth another visit.
PICTURED ABOVE: Ryan Childers and Nikki Visel in An Ideal Husband.
PHOTO BY: Erik Stuhaug