Reviewed by Judy Richter
Both his rising career and his happy marriage are threatened when a politician with a squeaky-clean reputation faces the possibility that a long-buried secret misdeed could become public. It seems the only way he can protect himself is to go against his principles and commit yet another misdeed. Such a scenario could have been snatched right out of today's headlines, but it's the basic plot of Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband," written near the end of the 19th century. No one can say that political corruption is exclusive to America today. If nothing else, Wilde shows how easy it is for us to gloat when a sanctimonious politician is caught in a scandal.
California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jonathan Moscone, a member of a prominent Bay Area political family, stages a savvy production that stresses the contemporary nature of Wilde's comedy even while keeping its look firmly in its original period. Hence Annie Smart's set design reflects the trappings of upper-class English society while remaining simple and flexible enough allow quick scene changes, complemented by Scott Zielinski's lighting and often accompanied by Jeff Mockus' sound design. Meg Neville's costumes are impressive, especially the succession of lovely outfits for the women.
The central character is Robert Chiltern (Michael Butler), a member of Parliament who is about to speak forcefully against a plan for a canal in Argentina. His wife, Gertrude (Julie Eccles), adores him for his high ideals. She's also involved in a nascent women's rights movement. The villain in the works is the oft-married Mrs. Cheveley (Stacy Ross), who has proof of the corrupt deed that launched Robert's career and fortune. She tries to blackmail him by saying she'll protect his secret if he'll back the Argentinian canal, which would financially benefit her.
The desperate Robert enlists the help of a friend, Lord Arthur Goring (Elijah Alexander), a foppish dandy whose witty epigrams against English society seem to make him the stand-in for Wilde, an Irishman. He's the son of the curmudgeonly Lord Caversham (L. Peter Callender), who wishes Arthur were more ambitious. Despite his father's criticisms, Arthur has the moral sense to steer Robert in the right direction and the quick-wittedness to keep things from becoming untracked. Moreover, he and Robert's younger sister, the coquettish Mabel (Sarah Nealis), manage to stop sniping at each other long enough to profess their love and become engaged.
Ross, a principal beneficiary of Neville's costume designs, is a wonderfully delicious villain. Encounters between her and Eccles as Gertrude drip with a sugary veneer of politeness over bitter enmity. Butler does well with Robert's wrenching dilemma, while Callender and Nealis create memorable characters. Alexander, however, seems to work too hard as Arthur, as if he hasn't quite figured out this complex character. The society women so well played by Delia MacDougall, Nancy Carlin and Joan Mankin engage in idle chatter that Wilde so wittily skewers. Danny Scheie has deft turns as a French nobleman and as Arthur's officious butler.
Although the encounter between Robert and Gertrude at the end of Act 1 veers into the melodramatic, Moscone inserts some poignant and justified ambivalence to the ending, adding to the overall success of this production.