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An Ideal Husband

11 Feb

The Dangers of Being Earnest or Wildean Women May Not Judge…

If Mitt Romney’s fortune was made on a piece of insider trading, wouldn’t you want to know? Doesn’t Newt Gingrich taking exorbitant sums of money from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as a “consulting historian” smack of self-aggrandizing conflict of interest? Do the adulterous affairs of political sexual moralizers undercut their position? Shouldn’t the public want to know these things?

Apparently not, as long as your wife loves you, is the upshot of the Walking Shadow Theater Company production of Oscar Wilde’s sentimental drama An Ideal Husband. Playing at the Red Eye Theater and directed by Amy Rummenie, the company’s MRAC grant blurb promises “a play about responsibility in love and government, with a special focus on exploring the script’s provocative views on gender relations.” Although the show is spiked with Wildean aphorisms about public hypocrisy, the follies of middle class morality and the long-windedness of politicians, Walking Shadow does nothing with them to puncture our contemporary situation. Instead, we are presented with an earnestly plain performance of the script (albeit with lovely costumes and various aristocratic British accents) at a time when some critical, satirical context would be crucial.

In An Ideal Husband a seemingly upright public servant, Sir Robert Chiltern, is blackmailed by one Mrs. Cheverly, who has come into possession of a note proving that Chiltern’s fortune was originally built off the sale of a government secret. Mrs. Cheverly has come threatening to expose Chiltern unless he publicly backs a speculative stock market scheme that stands to make her a fortune. Chiltern’s adoring wife, Lady Gertrude, cannot stand the thought of her husband being anything less than a perfect man and so Sir Robert must choose between disappointing his wife by backing a scheme he know is wrong or being ruined publicly. Behind the scenes the dandy Lord Goring (think Algernon from The Importance of Being Earnest) acts as a flippant fixer and gets most of the best lines because after all, Wilde is standing his own fluid morality in there, as opposed to the stolidly Victorian Chilterns.

Adam Whisner (Sir Robert Chiltern) and Sara Ochs (Lady Gertrude Chiltern). Photo by Dan Norman.

As the put-upon politician Sir Robert, Adam Whisner is likable enough, delivering his self-doubt and recrimination with the requisite hand-wringing, but also given little to do with scenes that scream for a subtler, more subtextual reading. In confessing his original sin to Lord Goring, he avows that he still believes in the teaching of the Baron Arnheim, to whom he sold state secrets and told Chiltern of “…the most terrible of all philosophies, the philosophy of power, preached to us the most marvelous of all gospels, the gospel of gold.” That belief in the power of wealth, worthy of Gordon Gekko, gets glossed over in Chiltern’s romantic self-pity, even as the House and Senate debate the STOCK Act, even as wealth and education disparities grow in this country. Love may be in the air for Valentine’s Day, but so is economic policy and the opportunity to take on the amorality of the markets is totally missed here.

As the object of Sir Robert’s affection, Sara Ochs is so perfectly precious as the blinkered Lady Gertrude that any possible satirical skewering is left untouched. At the resolution of their see-saw between of absolutes, as she stands by her man, we are left to face the earnest declaration that, “A man’s life is of more value than a woman’s. It has larger issues, wider scope, greater ambitions. Our lives revolve in curves of emotions. It is upon lines of intellect that a man’s life progresses.” This elbow-gnawingly terrible declaration of love is delivered so matter-of-factly that it boggles the contemporary mind. There is no exploration here, it just is, and the irony that this statement comes out of the mouth of a character who professes to believe in “the Higher Education of Women” and is a member of the “Woman’s Liberal Association” is totally lost on Walking Shadow, if not on a self-satisfied Victorian audience.

Adam Whisner (Sir Robert Chiltern) and Heidi Berg (Mrs. Cheveley). Photo by Dan Norman.

Heidi Berg has the morally meatier role of the blackmailer Mrs. Cheveley and she does toy with it, providing the necessary spark for the opening act, but her confrontations with Lady Chiltern are directed into common anger where some sang-froid might have been more modern or appealing. Surely she would have learned that on the Continent. Still, the quickness at which Wilde has her crumble for love and the subsequent plot hole which is written off in the final machination (“The brilliant Mrs. Cheveley does not seem to have noticed that,” declares Sir Robert) does not do the self-sufficient woman justice.

At least the social lubricant is fluid and funny. Maggie Bearmon Pistner as the dowager Lady Markby (sub in Lady Bracknell from Earnest) has a splendid tirade about her husband’s long-winded oratory in the House of Commons that would make Maggie Smith proud and as Lord Goring’s stiff-upper-lip father, the Earl of Caversham, Alan Sorenson has some delightful putdowns about the declining work ethic of the younger set. The romantic entanglement of David Beukema as Lord Goring and Teresa Marie Doran as Miss Mabel Chiltern has all the requisite sparks to make their scenes together the highlight of the production, and in rejecting the “ideal” husband for a “real” husband, Miss Mabel makes a bold choice decades ahead of the other Chilterns. For his part, Beukema pulls off the Wildean dandy with aplomb and delivers a multiplicity of modern values trivially but with serious implications, lines like, “I am always saying what I shouldn’t say. In fact, I usually say what I really think. A great mistake nowadays. It makes one so liable to be misunderstood.” That is both familiar and refreshing, a well-placed flower in the buttonhole of an old suit.

For better or worse, we live in an age where the public and private are radically conflated and individuals are agents of their own morality, but An Ideal Husband makes an argument for private redemption over public knowledge, for wives to submit to husbands for political aspirations and for everything to turn out well enough for the upper class. We might wish for more from An Ideal Husband, but as Lord Goring points out “Life is never fair, Robert. And perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.”

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