By Richard Ades
Wilde in the Park hasn’t been nearly popular as Shakespeare in the Park, but Actors’ Theatre’s production of An Ideal Husband shows it can be done.
I had my doubts at first. Set in London in 1895, the play opens with a party scene during which a stageful of upper-crust Brits trade some of Oscar Wilde’s wittiest comments about society, the sexes and sundry other topics. But on the muggy night I attended, they had to compete for viewers’ attention with noisy insects and other commotions from both inside and outside Schiller Park. Added to the fast pace of the repartee, that meant few of the satirical jokes got much reaction from the overheated audience.
Luckily, the situation improved once the plot kicked into gear. Even the insects quieted down, as if they were eager to learn what would happen next.
The gears begin to mesh when the nefarious Mrs. Chevely (Beth Josephsen) offers a shady proposition to the party’s host, Sir Robert Chiltern (Ross Shirley). Revealing that she knows a damaging secret about Chiltern, a rising member of the House of Commons, Chevely threatens to spill the beans unless he throws his support behind a scam involving the construction of a canal in Argentina.
Chiltern reluctantly agrees, fearing a scandal would wreck both his career and his marriage. However, his sudden about-face on the bogus canal raises the suspicions of his wife (Sonda Staley), a former classmate of Chevely who knows all too well what kind of mischief she’s capable of. Lady Chiltern asks for help from the couple’s close friend, Lord Goring (Amari Ingram), who has his own reasons for distrusting Chevely.
In effect, Goring is called on to save the day, but we’re given little reason to think he’s up to the task. A “dandy”—which seems to be something like a fop but with fewer effeminate mannerisms—Goring is fixated on his appearance and clothes and restricts his conversation to the most trivial of concerns. Is such a person capable of saving Sir Robert from the conniving Mrs. Chevely? The answer to that question is left unanswered until the intrigue-filled second act.
A comedy like An Ideal Husband—a witty period piece with a dandified hero—could well have tempted its cast to farce things up. Instead, director Philip J. Hickman keeps portrayals sufficiently grounded that we actually care what happens.
Josephsen is blithely calculating as Mrs. Chevely, while Shirley and Staley earn our sympathy as the flawed Lord Chiltern and his upright wife. Ingram is mostly solid as Goring, though some of his lines could be delivered with more conviction. (Maybe he was distracted by a headset mike that occasionally malfunctioned on the night I attended.)
In an important secondary role, Robyn Rae Stype is amusing as Chiltern’s sister Mabel, who trades flirtatious quips with Goring. Funniest of all is Troy Anthony Harris as Goring’s dad, the Earl of Caversham, who never misses an opportunity to tell his frivolous son what a disappointment he is.
Supporting roles are nicely played by Joyce Leahy, Camille Bullock, AJ Copp and Ben Sostrom. All of the players are elegantly attired by Dayton Willison, whose costume designs are unobtrusively framed by Andrew Weibel’s white-on-white set.
Besides its absorbing plot, An Ideal Husband is an interesting portrait of the sexual roles and attitudes in the late 19th century. Lady Chiltern is clearly an early feminist, but some of her female friends are more than content to leave politics and other intellectual pursuits to the men.
Meanwhile, Wilde’s story of an ambitious politician who can’t resist the temptation of an underhanded deal remains, sadly, as timely as ever.
Actors’ Theatre will present An Ideal Husband through Sept. 4 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are pay what you will (donations requested). Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org