March 24, 2011 | by Patrick Folliard
On the Wilde side

Rachel Pickup as Lady Chiltern (left) and Nancy Robinette as Lady Markby in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of 'An Ideal Husband,' directed by Keith Baxter. (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy STC)

‘An Ideal Husband’
Through April 16
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street, N.W.
202-547-1122
shakespearetheatre.org

Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” may not be the gay literary genius’ best work, but where it lacks his usual comic brilliance, it funnily enough exudes D.C. relevancy.

A social and political satire set in late-Victorian London where money and power are king, the over-a-century-old comedy (currently running at the Shakespeare Theatre Company) is sure to strike a chord with today’s audience.

Rapidly ascending politico Sir Robert Chiltern (Gregory Woodell) is London’s golden boy. Not only is he rich and powerful with a brilliant career, but he’s also married to Lady Chiltern (Rachel Pickup), a decidedly good woman who considers him the ideal husband.

His charmed world is suddenly upset when a blackmailing Mrs. Cheveley (Emily Raymond) appears on the scene armed with an incriminating letter proving that Chiltern, like most politicians and those who’ve benefited from a meteoric rise in fortunes, stepped outside of the law at some point in his career. Though now a thoroughly honest fellow, it seems that as an ambitious young man — titled but poor — he sold cabinet secrets to a stock-exchange speculator.

Despite coming dangerously close to social and political death, our comprised hero Chiltern ultimately avoids public scandal and remains on top thanks mainly to the doings of his wise and compassionate bachelor friend Lord Goring (Cameron Folmar). Sadly, Oscar Wilde’s real life scandal didn’t end so neatly.

Not long after the very successful London debut of “An Ideal Husband” in 1895 followed by the equally triumphant opening of “The Importance of Being Earnest” that same year, Wilde sued his young male lover’s father for libel. Wilde lost the suit and evidence of his sexual relations with men that came up during the trial landed him in jail. Neither he nor his career ever recovered.

The sumptuousness of director Keith Baxter’s production beautifully brings to life society’s obsession with appearance. For the Chiltern’s London house, set designer Simon Higlett has envisioned a soaring, dark marble manse — a veritable monument to riches and raw power.

Similarly impressive are Robert Perdziola’s gorgeous gowns inspired by the works of la belle époque portraitist John Singer Sargent. More than once, slender Pickup as Lady Chiltern strikes a pose in the drawing room or on the grand staircase, and (artfully lit by Peter West) she momentarily becomes a Sargent painting.

While Wilde’s script can be a bit over the top at times, Baxter coaxes what’s best about it to the fore: Cheveley’s ruthless power play. Chiltern’s grappling with what he believes is an unavoidable loss of reputation and his wife’s realization that an ideal husband doesn’t exist.

As dandified idler Lord Goring, versatile New York-based actor Cameron Folmar displays a venerable light comic touch. Obsessed with the size of his boutonnière, Goring seems the most trivial of his rarefied circle, but in fact, he’s the only one who sees through the hypocrisy of society and understands the importance of compassion.

Handsome Gregory Woodall makes a sympathetic Chiltern. A winner at the game of life, he is all energy and ambition, but not smug. Even when it seems he’s lost everything, he is more resigned than angry. As the too good Lady Chiltern and her venomous enemy Mrs. Cheveley, Baxter has wisely cast British actresses Pickup and Raymond. They both deliver splendidly nuanced performances.

The remainder of the excellent large cast includes Shakespeare Theatre Company regulars David Sabin and Nancy Robinette who nicely play a pair of old guard stalwarts, and Floyd King as Phipps, Goring’s knowing manservant.

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