An Ideal Husband

Themes of truth, forgiveness and shallow rich people are all explored to their fullest in Pioneer Theatre Company’s new production of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband.”

This play has similar characters and situations to Wilde’s more famous “The Importance of Being Earnest,” but ultimately has a bit more depth to it.

Things start off silly enough, though. We are greeted by a fantastic set depicting a late-19th-century upper class home in England. It’s “The Season” (that is, the social season in late spring when the snooty people come to town to marry each other and show off), and Sir Robert Chiltern (played solidly by Ezra Barnes) is having a party. Most of the first act is used to establish how superficial and shallow these people are (“Beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics,” is how one character describes them), except for Chiltern and his wife (Kathleen McCall). These two have a strong marriage, deep affection for each other, and are among the most decent, nice folks in town — not to mention being filthy rich.

It is the “filthy rich” part that is called into question, however, as the evil Mrs. Cheveley (played with Cruella de Vil-esque villainy by Leslie Hendrix) introduces a scheme to blackmail Chiltern: Either he uses his influence in the Parliament to support a project she’s invested in, or she’ll let everyone know of the shady means by which he first gained his fortune.

This is where things get serious, and perhaps a bit too much so. The thrust of the second act is finding out more about Chiltern’s mistakes, made early in life and now coming back to haunt him. He can’t tell his wife, who puts him on a pedestal, but he also cannot sully his reputation by coming out in favor of Cheveley’s bad investment. When his wife does find out of his past deeds, things fall apart, and we are left to have our intermission with the image of a devastated Lady Chiltern weeping on the floor.

It’s dramatic stuff, coming from the same playwright who gave us the completely loony “Importance of Being Earnest.” There are powerful ideas in the whole “forgive-and-forget” and “nobody’s-perfect” and “love-me,-warts-and-all” themes — but couldn’t they have been established without getting so serious? Couldn’t this play have been an all-out comedy farce with just a bit of a moral to it?

The more I think of it, the more I’m convinced the answer is no. The third and fourth acts, after intermission, are funnier than the first two combined. Everything is ultimately wrapped up in a pleasing manner, of course, and these serious issues are dealt with — but it’s all very fun and farcical.

And this change from dramatic to comedic is very much how real life is. The characters are shaken from their socialite superficiality long enough to deal with reality — and then they get to go back again to fun and happiness. Only now, that happiness will be real, lasting stuff, for they have been through reality together. Real life can go from deathly serious to hysterically funny with just a brief intermission in between, and that’s how this play works.

The cast is as professional as anything, with even small parts being fleshed out to perfection — no small feat, considering everyone is supposed to be at least a little superficial. (How do you play a shallow character with depth?)

Richard Mathews, as Goring’s servant Phipps, has only a few lines, but gets huge laughs on almost all of them. Anne Stewart Mark and Trish Reading’s duo of ditzy social dames only appear in the first act but do a wonderful job of establishing the mood and setting.

Kathleen McCall’s Lady Chiltern is three-dimensional and sympathetic. The audience feels for her and loves her and her husband for their sheer goodness. On the other side of things, Leslie Hendrix’s Mrs. Cheveley is as humorously diabolical as they come — and yet we see a vulnerable side of her in the third act.

Even Lord Goring, who is meant to be the height of absurd idle triviality, is given depth and breadth by Dominic Hawksley. Even when he says things like, “I love talking about nothing; it is the only thing I know anything about,” one can tell that there’s more to him than that. And indeed, by the end we have seen ample evidence of his true character.

This is a good show. Do not be bogged down by the lack of humor that pervades the last 30 minutes or so before intermission; also, do not be daunted by the show’s 2:45 running time. In the end, the payoff is enough to make it all worthwhile.

One of the most interesting things about this show was the biography of Oscar Wilde included with the program. Wow, did that man ever have a life! Not one I'd personally want, but it seemed to work OK for him, except for the whole imprisonment, poor health and death things.