Hello, gorgeous! The curtain rises on a breathtaking scene—a magnificent drawing room filled with exquisitely gowned and jeweled women and dapper, dashing men. The music is elegant, the conversation clever, and every detail is designed to delight the eye and ear without taxing the brain. Sir Robert Chiltern (Gregory Wooddell) and his wife, the beautiful Gertrude (Rachel Pickup), are entertaining their nearest and dearest.
But into this garden of English Eden slithers a snake—Mrs. Cheveley (Emily Raymond) arrives unexpectedly, in the company of the dithering Lady Markby (Nancy Robinette). Mrs. Cheveley is in possession of a letter that could destroy Chiltern’s political career in the House of Commons. It seems that, as a young aide to a cabinet minister, Chiltern learned that the British government was going to support the building of the Suez Canal. Chiltern wrote to a wealthy investor with this inside information and was rewarded handsomely for the tip. Now Mrs. Cheveley announces that she has the letter and will reveal all unless Chiltern comes out in favor a scheme to build an Argentine canal that will cause investors to lose their shirts. Not only will Chiltern’s career be destroyed, but he’s certain to lose the love of the morally upright Gertrude.
Chiltern’s moral compass swings wildly as he alternately agonizes over the egregious action of his youth, justifies it as the necessary step toward building his fortune and his career, and plots to find some scandal he can use against Mrs. Cheveley. He enlists his friend Lord Goring (Cameron Folmar) in the effort. Goring is a charming fop whose major occupation in life is the avoidance of responsible adulthood. Goring knows Mrs. Cheveley—they were engaged for 3½ days some years ago in Vienna, he recalls.
And so the plot thickens. Oscar Wilde offers up lots of delicious dialogue about the foibles and fakeries of the British elite. When these gems are delivered by Shakespeare Theatre Company veterans such as Robinette or David Sapin as Goring’s father, the words have extra shine. The other old hand onstage, Floyd King, plays Goring’s butler, Phipps. He has only one scene but is, as always, hilarious.
The leads do a bang-up job. Emily Raymond enjoys every evil moment, and Rachel Pickup is lovely as the loyal wife. Wooddell is a terrific Chiltern, though he’s burdened by too many long, prosy speeches about the morality of it all. Director Keith Baxter could have done us a favor by cutting these down a bit, but Shakespeare Theatre rarely cuts even the purplest of prose. Audiences, be warmed: The first act is 90 minutes long. The second act, in comparison, flies by.
Bravo to costume designer Robert Perdziola and set designer Simon Higlett. This production is so beautiful that the audience gasps when the curtain goes up.
You’ll relish the wit of Oscar Wilde and recognize the intrigue. Is there a Chiltern in our House? Do you even have to ask?
An Ideal Husband is at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall through April 16. Tickets ($20 to $103) are available online.