News Column

Review: Witty thriller offers social commentary

November 2, 2013


Nov. 02--"An Ideal Husband," which opened Friday at the College of St. Scholastica, is Oscar Wilde's exposition of the foibles of English society, but it's also a pretty good thriller.

A woman appears at the home of Sir Robert Chiltern, a wealthy member of Parliament, with proof that his success has been based on his having sold a state secret 18 years earlier. She will expose him, she threatens, unless he publically endorses government support for a shaky business venture that will make her rich.

Chiltern's dilemma hinges on the vital role of public honor in the waning days of the Victorian era. Exposure would be the ultimate disaster, so he seeks the advice of his oldest and best friend, who ultimately neutralizes the threat.

But in relating his story, Wilde also addresses a host of the issues of his day, at times to -- for modern audiences -- excess. Honor, sin and forgiveness, the roles of sexes and the class system of the times, among others, are examined in sometimes tedious and repetitive scenes. Public television's "Downton Abby" mines the same vein, to the delight of American (and British) audiences, but in episodes usually less than an hour long. St. Scholastica's "Ideal Husband" runs more than 2 1/2 hours.

Cutting the script would be painful, though, because Wilde is such an exquisite and witty writer. George Bernard Shaw praised "An Ideal Husband," writing "Mr. Wilde is to me our only thorough playwright. He plays with everything; with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre."

Other than evading that disagreeable task, however, director Minden Hulstrom, her designers and cast, present an enjoyable, engaging and even thought-provoking show.

Hulstrom's signal achievement is English accents that are both credible and intelligible, something painfully rare in amateur theater. This cast's English might drive Henry Higgins to distraction, but it sounds authentic and you can understand every word.

The driving force in the story is Chiltern's friend, Lord Arthur Goring, a role superbly filled by Cade Kowalczak, who completely inhabits his character: a glib playboy persona hiding an intelligent, wise and loyal core.

As Chiltern, Joey Brueske has all his lines sharply etched in his consciousness but, unfortunately, no deeper.

As the blackmailing Mrs. Cheveley, Kristina Rootes had a solid grasp of the mannerisms of a 19th-century upper-class British woman, but didn't really become her character until the second act.

Sasha Howell's costumes captured the period perfectly and colorfully. And Kevin Seime's lighting and versatile set (three different rooms from some rotating panels and a few carefully chosen pieces of furniture) give the production a gratifying texture.

Paul Brissett is a Duluth writer and amateur actor.


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