Gloucester Stage Company’s “An Ideal Husband” is a theatrical tour de force

18Aug10

When most people think of Oscar Wilde’s plays, the one that often leaps to mind is The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde’s lighthearted comedy of manners. So it’s refreshing to see the Gloucester Stage Company present one of Wilde’s darker, more complex works.

Not that An Ideal Husband isn’t funny. It’s Oscar Wilde after all, and he skewers the British upper classes like few others can. The Daniel Morris adaptation of An Ideal Husband adds a layer of gender bending that mostly works and mirrors the play’s themes surrounding upper class male and female roles in Victorian England.

Most of the action takes place in the drawing room in the lavish home of Sir Robert Chiltern (played by Brendan Powers), a highly respected government minister. In the opening scene, Chiltern and his wife Lady Chiltern (Carrie Ann Quinn) are hosting a dinner party. The guests include Lord Arthur Goring (Lewis D. Wheeler), a close friend of the Chilterns, Sir Robert’s younger sister Mabel (Angie Jepson), assorted dowagers and other upper crust guests.

At one point in the evening, Lady Chevely, an enemy of Lady Chiltern’s from their school days, attempts to blackmail Sir Robert into supporting on the floor of the House of Commons a fraudulent scheme to build a canal in Argentina. If he refuses, Lady Chevely threatens to expose how Robert came into his own fortune – by using Cabinet secrets to buy stocks in the Suez Canal before the British government announced its purchase.

Sir Robert is terrified that he would be ruined by such a scandalous revelation, and worse, he knows that his wife (who he has never told) would likely leave him, because to her he represents the “ideal husband,” one who is above reproach and not susceptible to the temptations and frailties of ordinary men.

The cast of two male and two female actors take on nine roles, meaning that the men at times play women and the women at times play men. The pace of costume changes was frenetic. (Three dressers off each side of the stage assisted the actors with the process.)

The four professional actors are veterans of the Boston and regional stage, and Elliot Norton Award winning director Karen MacDonald coaxes fine performances across the board from the cast, as they inhabit multiple characters and dispense Wilde’s acerbic dialog. As Lord Goring, the thirty-something foppish bachelor, Wheeler gets to deliver some of Wilde’s best lines.

“Fashion is what one wears oneself,” Lord Goring opines. “What is unfashionable is what other people wear.”

When Lord Caversham, Lord Goring’s father, scolds his son for wasting his time on social visits, Lord Goring quips, “My dear father, when one pays a visit, it is for the purpose of wasting other people’s time and not one’s own.”

Julia Noulin-Merat’s set succeeds in recreating the elegance of a Victorian era drawing room. The prominent placement of Fragonard’s 18th century painting “The Swing,” suggests the hedonism and decadence of the upper classes, while the statue of Achilles on a table at the front of the stage represents the vulnerability that can follow the lust for wealth.

An Ideal Husband was written 115 years ago, but its themes of government corruption and using insider information for financial gain resonate today. Wilde even slips in a dig regarding treachery in the press that is sadly prophetic.

“Spies are of no use nowadays,” Sir Robert Chiltern quips in Act III. “Their profession is over. The newspapers do their work instead.”

The gender-bending element, with men at times playing women and women sometimes playing men, works for the most part, although it can be momentarily distracting. But in the end, the audience finds itself mostly in awe of the cast’s ability to successfully manage such an immense work load.

The play feels much shorter than its 2 hours and 30 minutes, as the audience is absorbed in the rich feast of Wilde’s colorful characters and wit, as presented by GSC’s stellar cast and production crew.

An Ideal Husband runs through August 29, 2010 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA. For show times and tickets, visit the Gloucester Stage Company web site or phone 978-281-4433.

[An Ideal Husband, by Oscar Wilde. Adapted by Daniel Morris. Directed by Karen MacDonald. Set Design, Julia Noulin-Merat. Costime Design, Molly Trainer. Lighting Design, Kenneth Helvig. Sound Design, David Remedios. Production Stage Manager, Marsha Smith. Featuring Angie Jepson, Brendan Powers, Carrie Ann Quinn and Lewis D. Wheeler.]

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