Reviewed by Will Stackman
For the month of June, the Wellesley Summer Theatre, a professional company now in its eighth year at the College, has revived Oscar Wilde's surprisingly cogent social/political satire "An Ideal Husband" . Moviegoers will remember the hit British film in 1999. Fewer will have seen the successful London engagement which transferred to Broadway several seasons ago. Boston theatre goers may have seen the Lyric Stage's successful--somewhat shortened--version here a decade ago. Helmed by Andrea Kennedy, who's risen in the ranks of WST since 2001 to become Associate Director, this current production tackles the whole four acts of wit, intrigue, and social commentary in Wilde's most serious comedy, one with surprising echoes of his own future misfortunes.
At the center of this comedy of political and social intrigue is unscrupulous and alluring Mrs. Cheveley, played by IRNE winner Alicia Kahn, one of the company's founding members back for her annual appearance. Opposite Kahn once again is Derek Stone Nelson as Lord Goring, a wealthy idler, central to the machinations of Wilde's convoluted plot. Her target however is upstanding Sir Robert Chiltern, M.P., played by Shelley Bolman, who Mrs. Cheveley's returned from the continent to blackmail into supporting a canal building scheme in Argentina. Sir Robert's wife Gertrude, played by recent Brandeis MFA Angie Jepson, is drawn into the turmoil, though Wellesley student Kelly Galvin, playing her sister Mabel, the object of Lord Arthur's rather diffident courtship, remains above the fray. Both Nelson and Bolman are part of Theatre Espresso, a theatre-in-education troupe and have appeared for various other local professional companies.
WST is doing this three hour show with a baker's dozen players. Senior company member Ed Peed is back to play Lord Caversham, Arthur's old school father, while his wife Charlotte Peed is Mrs. Cheveley's talkative friend, Lady Markby. Neither character has much good to say about their absent spouses. Veteran actress Lisa Foley appears as aging Lady Marchmont, while Wellesley grad Victoria George is her catty friend Lady Basildon. All four were seen at Wellesley this winter in "Under Milk Wood, " as was Marc Harpin who plays the Chiltern's butler, Mason. Peripetatic local actor John Davin provides the same service for Lord Arthur as his man Phipps. Luis Negron doubles as Vicomte de Nanjac in Act One, and returns as Arthur's footman, Harold, in Act Three, while Dan Bolton is elegant Mr. Montford in Act One, and Mason's assistant James at other times. Among their varied credits, both Negron and Bolton have recently appeared for the Wheelock Family Theatre, but are new to this company, while Davin was seen here last season--and at Wheelock as well.
WST's sense of ensemble helps hold the show together, even through Wilde's extended witty patches. Costumer Nancy Stevenson provides Edwardian finery for these denizens of the upper class as effective as the ragged country wear she came up with for "Under Milk Wood." Moreover, the cast, many of whom have played in similar period clothing here before, carries off the fin de siecle look with panache. Designer Ken Loewit has created a formal set of three linked arches in mauve tones which would have pleased Oscar. Elegant furniture and a few potted palms complete the decor, which is shifted by the staff for each act. As usual Loewit's lighting is integral to his design, illuminating place and time. The incidental music is mostly Viennese, perhaps suggesting Mrs. Cheveley's previous haunts. University companies have kept such classics on the boards over the years, and will probably continue to add breadth to local theatrical offerings as more commercial operations look for smaller cast, less complicated productions. The difference at WST is that younger actors work with seasoned professionals eager to play such vintage roles.
Director Kennedy, following the lead of Nora Hussey, WST's award-winning Artistic Director, has paid attention to the details of behavior which make a period piece come to life. The Chiltern's moral dilemma would not be possible in today's more situational times, though it's clear that Wilde, the expatriate Irishman, had few illusions about the honesty and ambitions of politicians of his time. His analysis of what brings certain men and women together is moreover fully insightful, and is perhaps more clearly visible under more formal rules which governed personal interaction a hundred years ago--at least in upper class England. "An Ideal Husband" hasn't been produced as much as the perennial--and basically harmless--"The Importance of Being Earnest," also written in 1895. Its characters have very real if occasionally humorous flaws and must learn to live with them--and more importantly, those of their mates. One wonders what a sequel showing the marriage of Lord Arthur to the much younger Mabel Chiltern might have been like, had Wilde's own life situation not turned so disastrous by 1897. At any rate, this script, plus "Lady Windemere's Fan" and "A Woman of No Importance" seem to be finding their place in the repertoire, despite their length and the need to listen to what the characters are saying.