Opening Nights: An Ideal Husband

How Oscar Wilde snuck subversion into a drawing-room melodrama.

In some ways, Oscar Wilde's 1895 dramedy is even more fun than his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest: If it's not as acrobatically witty (what play is?), Husband's subject matter—political scandals and the double standards governing male vs. female behavior—is more up-to-date. Plus, it's more juicily melodramatic, with a memorably sumptuous villain in Mrs. Cheveley (Nikki Visel). She knows a career-crushing secret about Robert Chiltern (Ryan Childers), up-and-coming politician and, on the surface, paragon of rectitude. Complicating the matter is Robert's worshipful wife Gertrude (Candace Vance); the pedestal she places him on becomes, unknowingly, the gallows that threatens to accelerate and complete Mrs. Cheveley's takedown. (Husband could be so easily and tastily transposed to today, with, as the power couple, a Rick Perry–esque golden boy and a self-righteous Michele Bachmann type with a crucifix for a spine. Standing behind your man becomes the perfect spot from which to push him off the cliff.)

Thanks to director Karen Lund for keeping the pace brisk and including only as much sentimentality as is effective; for seeing to it that no actor oversells a laugh line, thus ensuring they all land; and for one welcome cut (the wince-making speech that begins "A man's life is of more value than a woman's . . . "). Among the fine cast, the most deliciously in command of Wilde's stylized, brittle ironies is Anne Kennedy Brady as Robert's sister Mabel; hearing her, you'd think she'd been talking this way from childhood. On the page, Robert can seem a bit stuffy and self-pitying, but the energetic Childers avoids such traps. His handling of Robert's Act 2 curtain speech is tremendous, driving home Husband's theme: "It is not the perfect but the imperfect who have need of love." Though Victorian audiences expected, if not demanded, a moral with their theater, Wilde's message here is unexpectedly subversive. A century later, it still hits home.

 
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