The problem with Oscar Wilde’s 1895 potboiler An Ideal Husband is precisely the thing for which its author is routinely praised: its flood of exquisite witticisms. They come fast and furious in the play’s opening, as a coterie of Victorian aristocratic types gather in the octagon room of parliamentarian Sir Robert Chiltern’s home, apparently for no other purpose than to skewer the superficiality and hypocrisy of London society. It’s such a giddy, farcical world that the sudden intrusion of mysterious, scheming Mrs. Cheveley, bent on blackmailing the seemingly unimpeachable Chiltern over a youthful moral indiscretion, turns everything absurdly melodramatic.
Or so I thought until I saw director Holly Robison’s savvy production for Ghostlight Ensemble. Robinson relaxes the farce into drawing-room comedy and populates it with passably clever people who have much deeper concerns than the strategic deployment of bons mots. It’s a warm and human world, quite unlike any I’ve seen in a Wilde staging, where the drive for revenge, honor, and self-preservation is disarmingly familiar. Naturally, the melodrama transforms into, well, drama.
This approach creates a few dry patches, namely every time Wilde provides little but witticisms to carry a scene. But the trade-off is remarkable: a compelling examination of acute moral dilemmas faced by recognizable people with rich inner lives. Robinson’s supremely confident cast never falter, despite being packed into the living room of Gunder House with a fully illuminated audience a few feet away. These two and a half hours fly by. v
Correction: This review has been amended to show the correct spelling of the director’s surname. It is Robison, not Robinson.