Entertainment » Theatre

An Ideal Husband

by Andrew  Clark
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Wednesday Feb 6, 2013
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Jennie Eisenhower and Ian Merrill Peakes in An Ideal Husband
Jennie Eisenhower and Ian Merrill Peakes in An Ideal Husband   (Source:Mark Garvin)

The Walnut Street Theatre has mounted an admirable production of Oscar Wilde’s beloved play "An Ideal Husband" that employs memorable plot twists and is near impossible to keep up with prose to great effect. A sprawling four acts with a correlating number of giant set changes command the audience’s attention for nearly three hours, with a rare subtlety and wit.

The story focuses on the upper echelon of London society, where scandals are frequent and one’s status can fall as quickly as it rose. At the center of "An Ideal Husband" is the scandal long hidden by Sir Robert Chiltern. Considered an ideal in society, Chiltern possesses a high standing in the House of Commons, a sterling reputation as a gentleman, and a sensible, scandal-free wife to come home to.

It is only the appearance of a character from high society’s past, Mrs. Cheveley, that throws a wrench into the Chilterns’ lives, as well as those close with them. As blackmail and intrigue take over at a dinner party at Sir Chiltern’s, the events of the next two days unfold slowly but hilariously over the four acts.

In this story are relevant and complicated musings on political corruption, personal responsibility, and what the cost of pride and vanity can be on all levels of society. These matters are masterfully addressed without the clunky preaching of lesser playwrights than Oscar Wilde. And while the juicy story is the motor that keeps the show plunging forward, it is the execution that takes center stage in a show such as this one, and Walnut Street Theatre is routinely spectacular in this sense.

Wilde’s prosaic manner of writing is a sharp reminder of how sophisticated and beloved a playwright he was. There are whole minutes where very little is being communicated but it is done with such wit and entertainment that I could hardly tear myself away. It is with this profusely difficult book that the phenomenal cast weaves its magic.

Ian Merill Peakes presented a wonderfully nuanced Sir Robert Chiltern opposite Jennie Eisenhower, whose unwaveringly innocent and morally high grounded Lady Chiltern perfectly complemented the underhanded dealings of most of the characters.

The Walnut really pulled out the stops when it came to casting this mountain of a show. Ian Merill Peakes presented a wonderfully nuanced Sir Robert Chiltern opposite Jennie Eisenhower, whose unwaveringly innocent and morally high grounded Lady Chiltern perfectly complemented the underhanded dealings of most of the characters.

Kate Fahrner had a difficult task playing the complicated and detestable Mrs. Cheveley, and did not always rise to the occasion, but never so noticeably as to bring down a scene.

On the other end, Luigi Sottile had the largely superficial Lord Goring and invigorated the character with such humor and animation that it was near impossible to keep my eyes off of him. This is no surprise as Sottile has been uniformly spectacular in every various show I have had the pleasure of seeing him in.

I would also like to take note that the ever magnetic and pitch perfect Grace Gonglewski was criminally underused in this production, but certainly made the most of her small time on the stage.

Walnut Street Theatre’s "An Ideal Husband" is a wonderful throwback to an older form of stagecraft, beautifully interpreted in an exciting and respectful production. Three hours can be something of a daunting run time these days, but if you are willing to get lost in the expert cast’s interpretation of a theatre classic, this show is a season must-see.

"An Ideal Husband" runs through March 3 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. For info or tickets, call 215-574-3550 or visit http://www.walnutstreettheatre.org/.

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