Review: ‘Ideal Husband’ is ideal Wilde

Recent headlines aside, political scandal is nothing new. The Larry Craigs and Eliot Spitzers of the world may provide juicy copy for today’s news, but no one wrote about the divide between public morality and private conduct with the wit, style and insight of Oscar Wilde, whose “An Ideal Husband” opened Saturday at the California Shakespeare Theater.

The 1895 comedy isn’t as often produced as the playwright’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” but many critics — including George Bernard Shaw — have considered it Wilde’s finest work. Jonathan Moscone, Cal Shakes’ artistic director, must think so too, because he’s given it a vibrant, thought-provoking and very funny new production.

At the center of the drama is the ambitious Sir Robert Chiltern (Michael Butler), whose sterling reputation on London’s political scene conceals a dark secret: early in his career, he traded insider government information for significant personal gain.

If society holds Chiltern in high esteem, his wife, the naïve Gertrude (Julie Eccles), worships him like a god, or the “ideal husband” of the title.

Wealth, position, taste and morality: Robert and Gertrude appear to have it all. But Wilde quickly dispenses with the illusion.

The blithe veneer of the opening scene — a party at the Chilterns’, inhabiated by upper-crust types trading bon mots in various stages of inebriation and ennui — is shattered when an old acquaintance, Mrs. Cheveley (Stacy Ross), arrives to blackmail Robert.

She offers him a deal. She’ll keep his secret if he’ll lend his support to a public deal he knows to be corrupt. If he refuses, she’ll destroy his name and poison his relationship with Gertrude.

The principal parts are well cast. Butler and Eccles bring just the right blend of upright reserve and emotional depth to their roles, and Ross is both menacing and wonderfully magnetic as the venomous Mrs. Cheveley.

Elijah Alexander brings an appealing physicality and keen comic timing to the role of Lord Goring, the Chilterns’ close family friend (as a stand-in for Wilde, the foppish Goring gets many of the play’s best lines.) Sarah Nealis exudes charm as Robert’s sister, Mabel, and L. Peter Callender is a delight as the curmudgeonly Lord Caversham.

The rest of the cast is just as strong, with Delia Macdougall, Nancy Carlin, Joan Mankin, Danny Scheie and Ted Barker adding wit and color in supporting roles as society dames and servants.

Moscone and his design team — Annie Smart (sets), Meg Neville (costumes), Scott Zielinski (lighting) and Jeff Mockus (sound) — give the production an opulent Victorian setting of rich interiors, flowing gowns and glittering gems.

And Wilde’s script, with one brilliant line after another, shines like a diamond. Moscone’s insightful staging includes a wealth of smart touches, including a wry twist on the play’s final scene. Yet the director never lets us forget the playwright’s central premise: that politics is a down and dirty business, regardless of the era.

IF YOU GO

An Ideal Husband

Presented by California Shakespeare Theater

Where: Bruns Amphitheater, Highway 24 at Gateway Boulevard exit, Orinda

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays; closes July 27

Tickets: $32 to $62

Contact: (510) 548-9666 or www.calshakes.org

artsentertainmentOther Arts

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Crab fisherman Skip Ward of Marysville casts his crab net out off a pier near Fort Point. (Craig Lee/Special to The	Examiner)
San Francisco came back to life, and we captured it all

Last spring, in the early days of the pandemic, the bestselling authors… Continue reading

Revelers at Madrone Art Bar in the early hours of June 15, 2021 (Courtesy Power Quevedo).
No social distancing at Motown-themed dance party

‘I don’t care how anyone feels, I just want to dance!’

<em>The San Francisco Peace Pagoda stands tall in between Japan Center East and West malls.</em>
 (Ida Mojadad/The Examiner)
Patrons return to the Japantown mall

‘We’re so happy—it’s really hard to make a profit’

Scenes from an SFO-bound BART train on Tuesday, June 15, 2021, the day California fully reopened for business after the COVID pandemic. (Al Saracevic/SF Examiner)
SF reopens: BART riders dreading the end of the pandemic

‘I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be packed like sardines’

Micael Butial stands as he holds an umbrella that he painted with the words “Stop Asian Hate” at a rally held to show support for Asian and Pacific Islanders communities, Sunday, March 21, 2021 in San Francisco. (Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/Special to S.F. Examiner)
Inside the California organization tracking anti-Asian hate incidents

By Mallika Seshadri CalMatters Richard Lim was walking along a quiet sidewalk… Continue reading

Most Read