Who is better husband material -- the wealthy and ambitious undersecretary for foreign affairs, or the indolent dandy with a splendid wardrobe and a barbed wit?
Since the play is by Oscar Wilde, the answer should be obvious. But what makes "An Ideal Husband" captivating is its less obvious aspects. Adroitly directed by Amy Rummenie for Walking Shadow Theatre, this lucid staging is wickedly amusing, laden with subtle characterizations and as topical as your morning websites.
Sir Robert Chiltern's hair, brilliantined and severely parted, telegraphs him as both a bigwig and a prig. Adam Whisner manages to inhabit the fast-rising politico's despicable qualities as well as his vulnerability.
When his position is threatened by the blackmailing Mrs. Cheveley (Heidi Berg), Sir Robert at first admits no remorse for past misdeeds, actually finding a way to switch the blame to his unsuspecting wife, Gertrude (Sara Ochs). In an almost Genet-like moral flip-flop, he insists that his abuse of power in fact arose "from a terrible, horrible courage." Guys like this, it seems, still find politics irresistible. In today's world, Ochs' devoted Gertrude is the one standing beside her husband at the humiliating news conference.
Lord Arthur Goring (David Beukema), who "lives only for pleasure," is called upon to save the day. He gently tries to talk Gertrude out of the giant halo she has placed above her husband's head. The artfulness here arises not from slamming doors and stage hijinks, but from Wilde's dialogue, and from actor David Beukema's confident control of the play's pivotal character.
Young Mabel (Teresa Marie Doran), Sir Robert's sister, runs her charming motor-mouth like a late-Victorian Nicki Minaj. Naturally, she and Goring are drawn to each other.
Acts three and four are burdened by plot devices -- eavesdropping, purloined letters -- but throughout, Rummenie finds blocking to emphasize a solo speech, a trio or a party scene. It's rare to see so large a cast without any weak links.
In addition to a strong cast, Rummenie is ably assisted by an effective series of short musical interludes (Victor Zupanc), a spot-on lighting design by Peter Mitchell and an ingenious set design (Steve Kath) in which liveried servants crisply rearrange 10 wooden pillars to suggest different rooms. There is nothing small-budget about the elaborate period costumes designed by Amy Hill.
Claude Peck 612-673-7977. Follow on Twitter: @claudepeck