OREM — Oscar Wilde was at one time one of the most popular playwrights in London. His most well-known play is The Importance of Being Earnest. Closely following that play is An Ideal Husband, the current production being offered by Utah Valley University‘s Department of Theater Arts. It is an enjoyable production with a few slight drawbacks.
An Ideal Husband deals with themes of forgiveness for past sins, and the irrationality of strict adherence to social ideals. It tells the tale of Sir Robert Chiltern, a prestigious member of the House of Commons. In his youth, he was convinced to sell a Government secret that allowed a man to know how to buy shares in the Suez Canal, three days before the British Government announced its purchase of the canal. Mrs. Cheverley has a letter in her possession with these details and blackmails Sir Robert into supporting her fraudulent scheme to build a canal in Argentina. Sir Robert’s wife is ignorant of her husband’s past and cannot understand his sudden support for Mrs. Cheverley’s scheme. Sir Robert confesses his troubles to his friend, Lord Goring, who had a past relationship with Mrs. Cheverley. Lord Goring attempts to help his friend and discovers a brooch that was left at a party by Mrs. Cheverley. He gives this jewelry to his cousin, from whom it was stolen, and he uses this knowledge to secure the letter from Mrs. Cheverley, which he then destroys.
UVU’s production succeeds on many levels. Director Isaac Walters prepared his cast well, and presents a convincing period look and feel in the casts’ mannerisms and dialogue. He keeps the pacing brisk and light through the evening, particularly in some of the more expository sections of the play. Costume designer Amanda Maree Shaffner and assistant Carolyn Urban have created truly beautiful costumes for this Victorian period piece. Scenic designer Jill Loveridge created a striking and versatile set that works well and converts from location to location, with minimal set dressing changes.
Marshall Madsen is delightful as the dandified bachelor Lord Goring. His air of nonchalance and sarcastic tone fit the character perfectly. The play took a decidedly upbeat tone when he was onstage and he was thoroughly endearing in the role. Equally endearing was Becca Ashton as Lord Goring’s foil and romantic desire, Mabel Chiltern. Her ready smile and command of the character’s sharp wit made her an equal match for Madsen’s Goring. The scene with them together in the last act was a delight in itself and boosted the overall feel of the show’s excellence. Of particular note was Spicer W. Carr as Lady Markby. I must admit that at when he first walked out onstage as Lady Markby, I thought that this was a bit of stunt casting, making a comical female role a drag role. However, he won me over, and I applauded the director for his choice. In a college setting it would take an actress of unusual range to pull off a believable aging grand dame role. Making it a drag role is a wonderful choice. Spicer’s comic timing was excellent; he makes the role great fun and seems to be having a great time doing it.
There were some points, however, where the production failed to one extent or another. First and foremost was the problem of actually hearing the actors’ dialogue. The Noorda Theater is not a large space. It is what would usually be considered a black box theater. There is no proscenium to block sound, and the audience is fairly close to the stage and the actors. Yet there were some actors who were positively inaudible through most of the play. Allyson Mitchell as Mrs. Cheverley was the most difficult to hear. She played her parts so intimately that she seemed to be keeping the conversation between herself and her fellow actors, rather than projecting so that we could all understand the plot. The majority of her dialog in the first scene was totally lost by me and my companion, but this is a general note for the majority of the actors onstage. If you happened to be lucky enough have the actors facing you, they could be heard, but if they turned their heads, as actors are wont to do, their dialog was lost.
In addition to the sound issues of the cast were the masks. The director made the choice to have characters who had something to conceal wear a mask as long as their character’s secret remained. It took a few scenes for me to realize that this was a “concept” decision, and I found it distracting, particularly in light of the awful mask they gave Mrs. Cheverley for her final scene. My companion almost laughed out loud when she walked onstage—it appeared to be an executioner’s mask. She had two rather lovely decorative masks previously, but this one was just out of place. I can appreciate the idea behind the decision, but felt that it distracted more than enlightened the themes of the play.
There were some unusual staging decisions as well, such as a hidden room that, when lit in a particular way, showed action within. This room was not positioned in a way that all the audience could see the action, and so the desired effect was lost on some level. In addition, there were some lighting miscues that distracted from the action, rather than help to focus the action of the scenes as they were intended. These lighting issues and the missed lines that occurred will likely correct themselves as the run proceeds. Hopefully the actors will project better as the run progresses as well.
Overall, this was a delightful production and an enjoyable evening’s entertainment. Oscar Wilde may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this witty production should make a few more converts to his works.