Summer is essentially over today with the yellow school buses fanning out through the cities and towns, but summer theatre festivals are still going strong, especially at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario’s Shaw Festival. I caught a recent production of An Ideal Husband, always trying to find the other Oscar Wilde plays no matter how far away.
Wilde’s An Ideal Husband is companion to his better known The Importance of Being Earnest, a play considered the finest comedy of the last millennium, making it a formidable companion at best. The two plays premiered in the same year – 1895 - certainly the apex of Wilde’s London success, and unfortunately, the harbinger of the tragedy that was to mark the end of his career. Both plays were still on stage when the playwright was jailed for gross indecency (for more on this, see Moisés Kaufman’s brilliant Gross Indecencey: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde).
While An Ideal Husband may be the lesser of the two plays, it is still much more than the series of epigrams it initially appears. As staged by director Jackie Maxwell, who is in her eighth season as the Shaw’s artistic director, An Ideal Husband is a portrait of a mature marriage, and in doing so, it is the portrait of moral relativity and open-mindedness so needed in Wilde’s reality. That is not to say that An Ideal Husband is deadly serious. The play also introduces us to a superhero character that is tragically missing from today’s comics – Lord Goring. But more on him later.
On its surface, An Ideal Husband is a story of extortion with gorgeous costumes (also more on this later), but the undertone is the story of an adult marriage. Whereas The Importance of Being Earnest is all trivialities about engagements and many of them, An Ideal Husband is about the compromises of the middle-aged when faced with the realities of disappointments and human frailties. Hardly the stuff of familiar Wildean comedy.
Above: Catherine McGregor as Lady Chiltern and Patrick Galligan as Robert Chiltern. (Photo by David Cooper)
Forty year old Sir Robert Chiltern (Patrick Galligan) is faced with a sin of his youth that threatens to undermine all the achieved ambitions of his career. His wife, Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Catherine McGregor) is a 27 year old woman of “grave Greek beauty,” grave being the operative word here. Chiltern must keep his secret from his wife at all costs, thinking she will not understand. How the marriage stands up to the disclosure is what makes An Ideal Husband relevant today; so few modern stories - whether television, movies, or theatre - depict the challenges of a grown-up relationship, Everyone Loves Raymond being the exception that proves the rule.
The necessity for Gertrude to bend to reality, to relax her strict, rigid code, makes the hindsight analysis of An Ideal Husband an exercise in pragmatism. She loves her husband: she must make allowances for his fallibility. Hers might be a Grecian beauty, but her husband is not a Greek statue. The end of the play forgives Robert for an action that could, technically, land him in jail (spoiler alert.) Would that the same had happened in real life to Oscar.
Ms. McGregor has the rigidity and brittleness that the role requires, but we don’t quite see the beloved wife that Robert sees and fears to disappoint. We see the strength but not the charisma that would make Gertrude the sun around which the planets Robert and Lord Goring, for that matter, revolve around.
A crucial, character-defining scene for Gertrude occurs early in the second act: she arrives fresh from a meeting of the Women’s Liberal Association, a proto-feminist organization as described by Wilde. The irony that Gertrude is talking the talk of early feminism but not extending it into action to those around her should be highlighted by the character of Mabel Chiltern, sister of Robert and a persona that is actually walking the walk of women’s liberation. Unfortunately, Mabel (Marla McLean) is reduced to a mannequin here. Literally. In a rare misstep in the production, Mabel shrinks to an epigram-spouting hanger; her character consists of costume and entrance.
As in most Shaw Festival plays, the production is sumptuous, but in An Ideal Husband (Judith Bowden, designer) the costuming veers wildly from beautifully fierce (Moya O’Connell as Mrs. Cheveley in her green evening gown) to forceful (the anachronistic pin-striped suits on the men at the end of the play, indicating a new day) to the absurdities worn by Mabel. The final word on costumes I’ll leave to Oscar: “A work of art, on the whole, but showing the influence of too many schools.”
Steven Sutcliffe as Lord Goring (Photo by David Cooper)
Back to my superhero. His getup consists of luxurious velvet trousers, a brocade dressing gown that streams behind him with such glory it would make Superman wince in costume envy. His ordinary day, as described by his creator:
“Why, he rides in the Row at ten o’clock in the morning, goes to the Opera three times a week, changes his clothes at least five times a day, and dines out every night of the season. “
This is a typical, exhausting routine in the life of Lord Goring. On top of all this, the action of An Ideal Husband requires him to salve a marriage, court a fiancée, appease a restless father (Lorne Kennedy), disarm a worthy opponent, and promote a new member to the Prime Minister’s cabinet, in essence, enabling the British Empire to survive another day. With Mr. Sutcliffe in the brocade, Lord Goring has all the wit and personality required of the role without being a scenery-chewing mouthpiece for the playwright. Under his benevolent watch, the Chilterns survive to see a “new life beginning.”
Additional cast and crew: John Gzowski (Sound), Anthony Bekenn (Mr. Barford/Phipps), Wade Bogert-O’Brien (Mason), Krista Colosimo (Mrs. Marchmont), Jonathan Gould (Mr. Montford), Ali Momen (Vicomte de Nanjac), Kelly Penner (Footman/Harold), Cherissa Richards (Lady Jane Barford), Ben Sanders (James), Wendy Thatcher (Lady Markby), Jenny L. Wright (Countess of Basildom), Judy Farthing (Production Stage Manager).
An Ideal Husband runs at the Shaw Festival until October 31.