At this time of renewed political idealism in the country, director Judith Swift has labeled the London setting of An Ideal Husband, at the Gamm through December 7, as "inspired by the 19th century, set in the 20th century, reflected in the 21st century."
MAKING A POINT: Hawkridge and Estrella.
The text hasn't been altered in this Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre production, just the context. The fallibility of our species — and accompanying defensive hypocrisy — is under comic examination by playwright Oscar Wilde. We get to apply it as we will to the results of the recent election.
As the play begins, we are at a dinner party given by Sir Robert Chiltern (Jim O'Brien) and his adoring wife Gertrude (Casey Seymour Kim). Also attending are his young sister Mabel (Karen Carpenter) and the witty perpetual bachelor Lord Goring (Tony Estrella), who is constantly spouting Wilde's trademark bon mots ("I always pass on good advice. It's the only thing to do with it.").
One of the other guests is unexpected and quite unwelcome. Mrs. Cheveley (Jeanine Kane) was a schoolmate of Lady Chiltern's, forced to leave the school because of thievery. She also was briefly engaged to Lord Goring. Mrs. Cheveley is there to make a deal with Sir Robert, when she finally gets him away from the others. She reveals to him that she knows of a scandal in his past. In government as a young man, he was privy to information that England was going to purchase the Suez Canal. Passing on that fact to an interested financier was the basis of his own fortune and thereby subsequent political success. Mrs. Cheveley was the mistress of the man that he sold the information to, and she has the letter that will reveal Sir Robert to be a scoundrel. He has a reputation as an honorable and influential member of Parliament, and he can have the letter only if he will speak in favor of a fraudulent scheme to build another canal in Argentina, in which Mrs. Cheveley has invested heavily.
As difficult as Sir Robert's disgrace would be if he refuses her, even worse is that he would lose the wife he adores. "We women worship when we love," Gertrude says. "I will love you always because you will always be worthy of love," she later adds, a ticking threat bomb wrapped lovingly in a compliment.
This conflict allows for many eloquent speeches and defenses of sketchy moral positions. Sir Robert goes so far as to say that it wasn't weakness but rather youthful courage that allowed him to gamble his future: "I felt that I had fought this century with its own weapons, and won."
Even the incidental characters here are well performed. An early delight is Irene Handren as the dithery Lady Markby, characterized by a warbling voice that wobbles more the more she drinks. (Everyone in this production usually has a glass in their hand, reminiscent of screwball comedies.) Even Lord Goring's manservant, Phipps (R. Bobby), gets to pull numerous faces, silently expressing surprise or suspicion about what his employer is getting into. Alan F. Hawkridge, the only real Brit of the bunch, as the Earl of Caversham, has a grand old time huffing and wheezing parental objections to Lord Goring.