It’s always a pleasant surprise to discover a gem in a most unlikely setting, and that’s what I experienced last Saturday night when I attended a performance of Oscar Wilde’s comedy An Ideal Husband at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. It was my first time at the venue, and I was delighted to discover an Equity Waiver theater that was more than capable of giving the larger houses a run for their money.
Wilde’s play is set in 1895 London at the height of the social season. We’re in the home of Sir Robert Chiltern (Jonathon Lamer), a respected member of the House of Commons, and his charming young wife, Gertrude (Gaby Santinelli), who adores and admires her spouse. He’s a rising star in the political world, and he seems to truly be “an ideal husband.”
The trouble starts when Lady Laura Cheveley (Ann Noble), a former classmate and enemy of Gertrude’s, arrives. She hadn’t been invited – she tagged along with another guest, Lady Markby (Alexandra Napier). As if that social faux pas weren’t bad enough, she has blackmail in mind.
Managing to get Robert alone, she tells him that she’s become involved in a shaky canal-building scheme that he opposes and demands that he publicly endorse it. She has in her possession a letter proving his involvement in an earlier shady deal that provided him the funds to rise to nobility – and she will expose the truth unless he agrees.
Robert is in quite a predicament. If he allows the contents of the letter to be revealed, he’ll be ruined. If he changes his tune and endorses the construction of the canal, he’ll lose Gertrude’s respect. Desperate, he turns to Lord Arthur Goring (Michael Matthys), his layabout bachelor friend, for help. Goring has his own history with Lady Cheveley – at one point they were engaged to be married.
Wilde’s jaundiced view of the upper crust was no doubt fueled by the mounting troubles in his personal life. His affair with young Lord Alfred Douglas had been discovered by the young man’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, and Wilde was arrested for gross indecency a few months after Husband‘s premiere.
The play is full of trademark “Wilde-isms,” and I’m afraid that years of spoofing (including the classic Monty Python sketch) have rendered them rather groan-worthy. What keeps the piece relevant for contemporary audiences is its depiction of corruption and hypocrisy in high society.
And the cast is first-rate. Lamer is passionate as the conflicted Robert, while Santinelli lends able support as the loving Gertrude. Noble is a hissably attractive Lady Cheveley and Matthys’ Lord Goring, clearly modeled after Wilde himself, veers between dissolute and resolute. John Combs brings the appropriate pomposity to Lord Caversham, Goring’s beetle-browed, disapproving father, and Napier’s Lady Markby is an amusingly shallow dingbat.
Gigi Bermingham’s direction is spot-on. Naila Alladin Sanders’ costumes look terrific, and Cesar Retana-Holguin’s attractive stage design is a good as one would expect to see in a larger house. I’m looking forward to seeing another production in this venue.
An Ideal Husband, at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 West Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through February 20. Reservations can be made online or by calling (626) 355-4318.