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STAGE REVIEW : A Wilde Gem in Able Hands

A respected politician who began an otherwise honorable career by cashing in on an insider trading scam is about to be found out. An unscrupulous woman tries to use this information to blackmail him into falsifying a report before the government. A career, a marriage and the possible public financing of a canal that should never be built all hang in the balance.

What makes “An Ideal Husband” so remarkable is that Oscar Wilde was writing about the turn of the last century, not this one, in this rarely seen show, now in a sparkling gem of a production at Lamb’s Players Theatre.

Under the crisp and sensitive direction of Kerry Cederberg Meads, the very talented Lamb’s Theatre ensemble quickly shows us that, although the men may be wearing proper British topcoats and the women flashing parasols, the flawed and yearning hearts that beat beneath the finery are very much like our own.

In a way, the play is emblematic of everything that Lamb’s does best: tightknit ensemble work by a core resident cast and a musical ability to provide riffs on a theme that pursues ethical questions--all without a trace of heavy-handedness.

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Indeed, the most fascinating of the characters, the conniving blackmailer, Lady Cheveley, is brilliantly played by Deborah Gilmour Smyth to show the human side of this monster. It is not just her greed but her jealousy of her former goody-goody schoolmate, Gertrude, that inspires her plan. Gertrude is married to Robert Chiltern, Gertrude’s match in morality--except, of course, for that insider trading scam that Gertrude does not happen to know about until Lady Cheveley has the pleasure of throwing it in her face.

Even as Smyth oils her way across the floor, coquettishly looking up from lowered eyelids, smiling her enigmatically knowing Mona Lisa smiles, weaving conversational webs like a veritable spider that her prey sticks to like so many helpless flies, she has her points of vulnerability. She nearly breaks down when she is repulsed by the man she wants; one believes her when she says, from her perspective, that all these maneuverings are a business deal to her, nothing more.

At one point, Lady Cheveley and Robert Chiltern had the same mentor, a Baron who taught Chiltern to subscribe to what Chiltern calls “the philosophy of power, the gospel of gold.” Now, although Lady Cheveley still believes, Chiltern has internalized his wife’s uncompromisingly moral philosophy. His dilemma comes when he has to decide whether to sell out to the blackmail and support the building of a canal he knows is wrong to save himself, or whether to risk ruin by sticking to what he believes is right.

Mike Buckley’s elegant, spare sets, nicely complemented by Alan Will’s lighting, are much assisted by a clever routine in which two servants (Smith and Sonja Anderson) do the tidying up, with one hurrying along the other, who has a weakness for gazing at herself in the mirror.

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Jeanne Reith’s costumes are a pleasure of billowing fabric, feathers and lace, and the uncredited sound design captures the elegance of the mood.

But the star of the piece is the genius of Wilde; aside from the famous wit (“I love to talk about nothing; it’s the only thing I know anything about”), one hears lines of depth that predate masterpieces by later writers. When Wilde equates “the horror” with Gertrude Chiltern’s fervent but mistaken belief in her husband’s innocence (“I was sure of it. I was sure,” she says), one hears a foreshadowing of the words Joseph Conrad would use in writing about the fiancee who lied to herself about her betrothed in “The Heart of Darkness.”

When the impassioned Robert Chiltern, defending himself before his outraged wife, argues that it is not the perfect people in this world who need love, but the imperfect, one can anticipate the impassioned speech Lorraine Hansberry was to write for Mama in “A Raisin in the Sun,” when she argues that people are deserving of love when they are fallen and need it the most.

If “An Ideal Husband” does have a fault, it ties up the ends too neatly, much unlike the way most situations resolve.

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Maybe not a lot has changed. The insider scandals continue. Prejudice continues. We continue to worship power and money and expect an unrealistic perfection of those who have acquired this power and money.

But perhaps we are more ready to hear Wilde’s pleas for love and charity than the society in his time was.

It certainly is difficult to resist his arguments in this irresistible play.

“AN IDEAL HUSBAND”

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By Oscar Wilde. Director, Kerry Cederberg Meads. Sets, Mike Buckley. Costumes, Jeanne Reith. Lighting, Alan Will. Stage manager, Sonja Anderson. With Pamela Smith, Veronica Murphy Smith, Michael Harvey, Gail West, Cynthia Peters, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, George Weinberg Harter, Robert Smyth, Rick Meads, Sonja Anderson and Robert Stark. At 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, with Saturday matinees at 2, through May 27; Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. May 27 only. Tickets are $13-$17. At 500 Plaza Blvd., National City, (619) 474-4542.


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