Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Maria Burnham/Ghostlight Ensemble
Oscar Wilde’s sarcastic wit and scathing social commentary is world famous, so it should come as no great surprise to discover that, in his play An Ideal Husband, we can find much that fits in the modern world. Despite being over 120 years old, the play’s themes might have been taken from today’s headlines: the power of great wealth, the devastation of discovering that our idols have feet of clay, the very different expectations society places on men and women. Director Holly Robison of Ghostlight Ensemble selected this play for their current production because of these themes that, as she noted, are “happening under the fun.”
In thinking about and performing Wilde, there is a tendency to focus on the surface—the wit, humor, and style—because it is such a well-crafted, compelling surface. We can be so dazzled by the artifice that we fail to truly consider the humanity of the characters.
No one can make that claim about Ghostlight’s production. If anything, this strong ensemble errs a bit too much on the side of exposing this “humanity,” sometimes at the sacrifice of the wit in Wilde’s very funny script. It is a well-acted, beautiful production, and it is very funny in many places, but often it can be mistaken for a drama instead of a comedy.
To be fair, Wilde’s story here is rife with dramatic touches. Its characters are guilty of immoral and even criminal behavior from stock fraud to blackmail, and one main character is so Puritanical in her world view as to be willing to throw away a marriage due to one past flaw. (“One’s past is what one is. It is the only way by which people should be judged.”) Though many characters exist for pure comic enjoyment and though Wilde’s crackling dialogue shines, there are indeed many serious undertones in this play. The interpretive decision of letting the drama lead instead of the comedy is an issue of tonality. Wilde is so good that it still makes for a wonderful evening and some excellent theatre, but many funny lines fall by the wayside because the audience is so busy watching a heavy scene play out that we can’t reconcile the humorous words with the serious tones.
None of this is to say that this is not a good production. In fact there are many extremely powerful moments that contrast with the comedy. All I am suggesting is that “powerful” may not be the first adjective that Wilde would have appreciated in connection to this play.
The acting is uniformly excellent and is, in fact, mostly very funny. Alex Ireys is wonderfully silly as Lord Goring, a “dandy” whose father, Lord Caversham (a hilarious Richard Engling), only desires him to take life more seriously and get married. The object of Goring’s affection is Mabel Chiltern (Hallie Merrill), a young woman who is the sister of Robert Chiltern, the aforementioned terribly flawed (but otherwise “ideal”) husband. Merrill delivers Wilde’s lines with the kind of quick, blithe effortlessness that they are designed for.
I love London Society! I think it has immensely improved. It is entirely composed now of beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics. Just what Society should be.
She is accompanied in this untempered interpretation by two other women, both of whom are written broadly and for maximum comic effect. Mrs. Marchmont (Allison McCorkle) and Lady Basildon (Song Marshall) lend all of their skills to playing the light, quick-witted banter as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Sebastian Summers and Stephanie Monday also shine in their brief scenes during the opening dinner party. Monday’s lines, it seemed to me, may have been somewhat cut for time, and if so that is unfortunate: she is every bit as strong as the other women. And, stealing the show at times, Michael Wagman plays two different butlers with varying degrees of sarcasm that are among the funniest aspects of the evening. All of this serves as strong proof that Robison can deliver on Wilde’s formula.
However, the central action of the play involves the Chilterns (Robert, played by Aaron Wertheim, and his wife Gertrude, played by Maddie Pell) and an antagonist named Mrs. Cheveley (Sam Bianchini). Cheveley has shown up at Gertrude’s latest dinner party to blackmail her husband into lending his support for a flimsy “scheme” involving a Suez-like canal in Argentina, which Chiltern describes as “a commonplace Stock Market swindle.” Cheveley turns out to be in possession of a highly embarrassing letter written in his youth by Chiltern in which he divulges his government’s intention to support the Suez Canal in advance to his stockbroker, which is the foundation of his current fortune. Such a letter could easily ruin him, and he knows it. To make matters worse, Gertrude bases her love for him almost entirely upon the belief that her husband is a moral icon. Confronted by Cheveley, she acknowledges that she would “shun” anyone who could compromise his morality. Eventually, both Chilterns bring Lord Goring, Robert’s best friend, into this mix. So we are clearly set for drama during which Wilde, in his typically dextrous way, offers some brilliant bon mots.
In England a man who can’t talk morality twice a week to a large, popular, immoral audience is quite over as a serious politician. There would be nothing left for him as a profession except Botany or the Church.
The Chilterns’ situation is certainly not a funny one. We’ve all seen in the past year how easily scandal can bring down a public figure. So there is nothing wrong with playing the drama in these scenes. Indeed they are written that way. But one must be careful to play up the many witty lines that occur during these scenes or there is the possibility of losing them (and indeed other lines elsewhere) to the serious action. It’s understandable that Pell, who plays a humorless woman, and Wertheim, who spends the entire play with his career and marriage threatened, are deadly serious in their acting. But Cheveley, especially, with her caustic behavior, has to have fun with her blackmail or the character becomes too much the comic book villain. Bianchini, though she gives a powerful performance, delivers almost all of her lines with dark undertones. One can almost hear the “Bwa-ha-ha!”
Suppose that when I leave this house I drive down to some newspaper office, and give them this scandal and the proofs of it! Think of their loathsome joy, of the delight they would have in dragging you down, of the mud and mire they would plunge you in. Think of the hypocrite with his greasy smile penning his leading article, and arranging the foulness of the public placard.
Thank goodness that Ireys, as Goring, brings a needed smirk into all of this. His scene when he believes Lady Chiltern is in his drawing room is hilarious (particularly since we know it is Mrs. Cheveley). And even when he is serious, Ireys has a spark of joy in his deliveries that makes his scenes work beautifully.
Ghostlight is performing the play on location at the Samuel H. Gunder House in Berger Park. It is an excellent choice: we are able to watch the scenes roll out in rooms where they might actually have occurred. There are, however, two drawbacks to this site-specific location: first, parking is terrible around Berger Park; be advised to get there early or you may find yourself parking several blocks away. Second, due to the size of the rooms, Ghostlight found it necessary to use chairs that are less than charitable to one’s bottom and back, and it is a long play. If I went to see it again, I’d bring a cushion for the first two acts. (The chairs in the room used for Act Three are more comfortable.)
Directing a play with both comedic and dramatic elements can be a challenge; it is very easy for one to overwhelm the other, and the director must make a choice of which tonality to use. And there is nothing wrong with making choices. Robison’s clear choice here is to play up the dramatic. Because of that, she gets some dynamite performances from her excellent cast, but sometimes even empirically hilarious lines become mere dialogue. It’s still a first-rate production (hence the rating) and the laughs are open and honest and full, but I can’t help thinking that the point she wanted to make would still have been there in a more comedy-first version of the play.
An Ideal Husband is a production by Ghostlight Ensemble now playing at 16205 Sheridan Rd in Chicago, until April 28. Performance times vary; check the website . Tickets are available from Ghostlight Ensemble. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.