If you prefer your Oscar Wilde with a whiff of social relevance, then An Ideal Husband might be your cup of tea. It deals with an instance of political intrigue that ignites a blackmail plot, which is a lot of heavy lifting for a playwright whose wealthy characters usually just indulge in trivial and insanely witty banter while munching cucumber sandwiches.
And if this is your kind of play, you have two chances to see it. The Great Lakes Theater Festival opens their version on Saturday, October 2, and the Lakeland Civic Theatre’s production is up and running now. While the Lakeland effort struggles to find its pace in the rather lengthy first act, things perk up after intermission and a Wildean good time is had by (almost) all.
Sir Robert Chiltern, an apparent paragon of virtue, is waylaid at a party by Mrs. Cheveley, a snarky woman who knows a secret in Chiltern’s past. It seems Chiltern sold a state secret for the money that continues to finance his luxurious lifestyle. For her own financial reasons, she forces Chiltern to reverse his negative report on the Suez Canal, lest she release the proof of his previous indiscretion.
Meanwhile, Chiltern’s best pal, Viscount Goring, goes meandering about as an air-headed dandy, the scourge of his father, the Earl of Caversham (Michael Rogan). Goring has most of the best lines, structured in the familiar tempo Wilde uses. As he observes: “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”
As Chiltern and Cheveley battle it out, Chiltern’s wife (a steely yet loving Diane Mull) stands by her man, until facts, intercede, and Goring tries to woo Chiltern’s lovely sister Mabel.
The Lakeland cast battles to a draw with the first half of the play, as the actors try to find their footing. In the central role of Sir Robert, Jeffery Grover provides a solid presence. But his fencing with Mrs. Cheveley doesn’t spark as it should, because Jennifer Davies, as Cheveley, delivers many of her lines with an unchanging tempo and a single facial expression trapped somewhere between a sneer and a wince. Playing a nasty person should be a lark, but here it seems a chore.
On the other hand, Katherine DeBoer as Mabel is a delight, capturing the frivolous essence of Wilde’s words. In the smaller role of Lady Markby, Maria Thomas Lister also has a fine time with her few speeches, tossing them off with just the right upper-crust attitude.
In the juicy part of Goring, who is really a thinly disguised Wilde, Doug Kusak labors (under a wig as thick as a beaver pelt) to find his character, failing to take enough chances with shape and texture in delivering the clever wordplay. But Kusak comes out of his shell after intermission, cranking up the energy and turning Goring into an impish cad with a heart of gold.
Even though the play, at more than 2 ½ hours, is a good deal longer than it should be, director Martin Friedman keeps everyone on point so that the laughs Wilde is due eventually come through.
An Ideal Husband
Through October 10 at Lakeland Civic Theatre,
Lakeland Community College, 7700 Clocktower Drive,