An Ideal Husband

The overall feel of the Austin Playhouse production of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband is polite and relaxed, but the actors do provide gut-busting performances

Arts Review

An Ideal Husband

Austin Playhouse, through Feb. 18

You see her the moment you walk into the theatre. A mock statue of Denys Puech's Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, is crouching naked, spreading her long hair over her arms like wings. Behind her, peacock feathers are painted in gold against the violet wall and on the floor in the shape of a heart. With foil covering doors, the reflection is imperfect. Perhaps she's a piece that represents the opulence of Oscar Wilde's comedy of manners from an era of "dowdies and dandies" in 1895. Perhaps she's the parallel image of Don Toner's staging of An Ideal Husband, showing that, rather than an ideal husband, Wilde meant to focus on an ideal wife.

An otherwise sinless Lord Robert Chiltern, a member of the House of Commons, had built the foundation of his home and political career on the success of one exploit: a single letter he wrote revealing an insider-trading secret days before the opening of the Suez Canal. This information falls into the hands of a gold-digging woman, Mrs. Cheveley, who is also an old enemy of the highly principled Lady Chiltern from their school days. In an almost feline manner, Mrs. Cheveley dangles the missive before him, saying that if he doesn't reverse his stance against a swindle involving another canal going through Argentina (how prescient Wilde was), she'll go public with it. The exposure would ruin his career and, ultimately, his marriage.

Though a decadent and political play, An Ideal Husband is still a jigsaw of perfectly placed euphemisms and one-liners of Wildean wit and subtext. Toner's direction, especially in the actions of the servants during scene changes, cleverly goes with the grain of Wilde's comedy as part of the social dialogue. The overall feel is polite and relaxed, while missing the stick-up-the-bum Britishness of high society. It is a comic drama with a cast of stock characters portrayed by actors giving gut-busting performances. You'll see them in the opening repartee between two imperfect wives who speak half truths (played by Margaret Hoard and Amber Dupuy) and in the giddy Frenchman with the oversized bow tie (Ben Wolfe) and in the blubbering old man (Dirk van Allen). Bernadette Nason's idle prattle as Lady Markby is most comical.

Of the all the characters, Lord Goring requires the most guile. An unwed aging "dandy" (pinky rings and all), he is the idealized persona of Oscar Wilde. "Fashion is what one wears oneself," he says. "What is unfashionable is what other people wear. Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself." A stark contrast to the ideal husband, Goring becomes a hero. Gray G. Haddock plays the character more as a good friend of the Chilterns with hedonistic tendencies rather than the conceited libertine Wilde was, which works for this Austin Playhouse production. The cast features several company actors in roles similar to those they played in last year's A Man for All Seasons. David Stahl again plays with aching heart and emotion the father and husband with the insurmountable moral dilemma. The wife, played by Janet Hurley Kimlicko, worships him with knowing smiles and tough love, giving boldness to her gender. She is a wife who ideally loves her husband with all his faults.

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An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde, Austin Playhouse, Don Toner, Gray G. Haddock, David Stahl, Janet Hurley Kimlicko

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