Oscar Wilde has been enjoying renewed popularity of late, from Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency to Broadway's Salome with Al Pacino. George Bernard Shaw once said of Oscar Wilde, "He made the mistake of not knowing his place." But, in a more charitable vein, he also said, "The criticism of manners and morals was his real forte." Oscar Wilde's works are often classed as comedy of manners or drawing-room humor, but occasionally they are more substantial than merely cheeky -- as in the case of An Ideal Husband.
An Ideal Husband concerns turn-of-the-century London society, at the height of the fashionable season. Sir Robert Chiltern (Sean Kent), the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Monica Francisco) are enjoying the pinnacle of Sir Robert's political career and their own wealth and security. But a mysterious Mrs. Cheveley (Robyne Parrish) threatens to destroy their world with a single letter dredged up from Sir Robert's past. He must either lend his support to a shady canal scheme of hers or risk exposure and scandal. Backing the canal scheme, however, will spell the end of his political career.
Lady Gertrude is convinced her husband can do no wrong -- when she discovers he can, it nearly destroys their marriage. She makes the same mistake as the Moral Majority: she is so rigid in her principles that she is almost incapable of forgiveness or charity. She cannot accept reality for what it is -- namely, messy and imperfect. Mrs. Cheveley, however, is determined to wrest from life what she can, regardless of the consequences to herself or others. Fortunately, Sir Robert's gallivanting bachelor friend Lord Goring (Ben Cherry) steps in to try and save the day. Goring, the play's most reliable comic relief, is a fairly obvious stand-in for Wilde himself -- a well-dressed dandy, ostensibly caring only for fashion and parties and witticisms ("I love talking about nothing, Father. It is the only thing I know anything about") but with a heart of gold.
Underneath Wilde's trademark flippancy, and the biting satire of society life, lurks a surprisingly insightful play. The story involves a political swindle, hypocrisy, theft, deception, and intrigue, and poses some thought-provoking questions: how much does one's past define one's present? Or, indeed, one's self? Do people change? Are they capable of overcoming fundamental weaknesses? Or are we all doomed to repeat the same mistakes again and again?
Sonnet Repertory Theatre chose a prescient play for their season opener. The core cast (Kent, Francisco, Parrish, and Cherry) was excellent, especially Cherry as Goring, quite convincing in his silliness. Kent and Francisco as the Chilterns were so earnest and steadfast and fundamentally good that they only served to underscore the true absurdity of their situation. While Parrish was strident at times, she was always compelling. Unfortunately, while there were flashes of sincere acting, the rest of the performances were largely affected -- especially the accents, which after a time were grating. The direction by John Gray, while respectable, was too dependent on maneuvering the huge cast around the tiny stage into the time period's obligatory embraces, bows, and curtsies. Even the austere set, consisting of a single wall, couldn't offset the small stage. An Ideal Husband is a fine play, and featured some fine actors, but might require a slightly larger space.
However, Kent and Cherry nearly made up for that. They were a pleasure to watch, and this play is certainly one of Wilde's best. As Wilde himself said, "The stage is not merely the meeting place of all the arts, but is also the return of art to life."
Also with James Beecher, Kasey Mahaffy, Jeffrey Kitrosser, Elizabeth Yocam, Karen Eke, Judy Deylin, Christy Pusz, Jordan Simmons, and Katrina Kent.
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Copyright 2003 Jenny Sandman