note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
Special to Theater Mirror
The Wellesley Summer Theatre likes to tackle plays of depth, and Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" is no exception. Although the playwright's trademark witticisms snap, crackle and pop throughout the play, his tone is at times uncharacteristically earnest.
In the current production a pivotal character practically exudes poison. The versatile Alicia Kahn, directed by Andrea Kennedy, plays Mrs. Cheveley as a blackmailer without extenuating attributes. Even her laughter and her clever remarks have a hard edge. She has been a dishonest woman from the cradle, and through her machinations Wilde suggests that a high moral stance in public or private life inevitably attracts to itself the kind of pernicious force she represents.
Here's the story. An ideal husband, the wealthy, upright and amiable Sir Robert Chiltern (Shelly Bolman), and his equally agreeable wife (Angie Jepson) are giving a party. To this party their ditzy friend Lady Markby (Charlotte Peed) brings her friend Mrs. Cheveley. Lady Markby is greatly amused by this glamorous widow, who has just returned to England from Vienna, where she has made a career of captivating wealthy men and dabbling in politics.
Mrs. Cheveley appears successful and confident, but as an old flame observes, too much rouge and not quite enough clothes are "always a sign of despair in a woman." She has come to the party determined to speak privately with Sir Robert, whose wealth and spotless reputation have raised him high in the House of Commons. She reveals she has evidence of a youthful indiscretion that would ruin him if made public. But the price she demands for her silence also will ruin him -- at least in the eyes of his adored wife.
As in "The Picture of Dorian Gray," Wilde is dealing with the impossibility of completely banishing evil from human life. In an imperfect world, a balance between clear-cut morals and fuzzy ones must be struck. And loving someone who is perfect is less meaningful than loving someone who errs. "It's the imperfect that have need of love." The lively performances in this production make for a satisfying evening, an escape to a distant world of wealthy lords and ladies that is also a world of moral dilemmas familiar to all. Particular mention should be made of the cameo roles. There are no weak links at the Wellesley Summer Theatre. Luis Negron, as a Vicomte trying pathetically hard to please everyone at the party, is delicious. And John Davin, as the valet Phipps, is a solemnly hilarious foil to the insouciant Lord Goring (Derek Stone Nelson), hesitating just long enough to say, "Yes, my Lord," to his master's outrageous declarations.
Nelson does an outstanding job as a quintessential Wilde aristocrat -- witty, irresponsible and pleasure-loving. This time, though, Wilde has his archetype discover in himself a surprising seriousness of purpose, stirred up by his friends' danger.
Ed Peed plays Lord Goring's irascible father, who is frustrated with his son's general fecklessness and his dilatory approach to finding a bride. Equally impatient on that score is the younger sister of Sir Robert, Mabel Chiltern (charmingly portrayed by Kelly Galvin). Fortunately for her future happiness, Mabel does not seek perfection in a husband. And anyway, she says, an ideal husband would bore her dreadfully.
The Wellesley Theatre production offers much to delight in, but if playgoers go for nothing else, they should go for the pure fun of hearing Wilde's dialogue delivered with an unerring sense of timing: "Pluck is less common than genius nowadays"; "In modern life, nothing produces such an effect as a good platitude"; "The strength of women is that psychology cannot explain us: Science can never grapple with the irrational"; "I like talking about nothing: It's the only thing I know something about"; "To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance."
Ken Loewit designed the lighting and the handsome set, with its arches, pillars, potted ferns, chaises and loveseats. Nancy Stevenson created an impressive collection of lush, colorful gowns to set off the white ties and tails worn by the gentlemen. "An Ideal Husband" runs through June 24 at the Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre, housed on the Wellesley College campus. For further information, call (781) 283-2000.