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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 7, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 40
Taproot offers Wilde comedy Ideal Husband
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Taproot offers Wilde comedy Ideal Husband

by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN Contributing Writer

An Ideal Husband
Taproot Theatre
Through October 22


In January of 1895, Oscar Wilde - poet, playwright, and man-about-town - was seemingly an ideal husband. He was happily married and the father of two charming young sons. Two earlier social comedies - serious plays with a polished veneer of epigrams and contemporary wit - had been amazing successes, and his latest, An Ideal Husband, would open as a third smash hit. Wilde was busily at work on his fourth comedy, his farcical masterpiece The Importance Of Being Earnest, which would open mid-summer. But by fall, his reputation would be in tatters, his marriage all but destroyed. His scandalous affair with Lord Alfred Douglas would send him to prison for two years of hard labor for 'gross indecencies.' Rarely has anyone - in the literary arts, in politics, in the public eye - fallen so far so fast. While a Gay martyr was born, a major playwright and author was silenced.

While Earnest remains his masterwork - and his best-known play - his first three comedies are well worth a look. Taproot Theatre - with its artistic mission to tackle philosophically challenging works that reflect on modern-day values - has a solid hit with Wilde's An Ideal Husband. The polished production, playing through October 22 at the Greenwood Theatre where Taproot makes its home, is well-directed by Karen Lund and well-performed by a cast of Taproot regulars. Taproot is often praised for its ensemble performances - a whole cast working smoothly toward a common goal. Rarely does a Taproot staging allow grandstanding by a single actor. Once again, the polished ensemble performance is well worth the effort. Seattle is unlikely to see a better Ideal Husband in the next decade.

Ryan Childers anchors the production as the title character, Sir Robert Chiltern. He is thoroughly believable and likeable as a successful businessman and politician with one major flaw in his past. As a young man, he sold inside information about the building of the Suez Canal. Now, 20 years later and married, successful, well-liked, and politically promising, the past comes back to haunt him. Threatened with blackmail if he does not support a questionable new canal project in South America - a scheme he does not believe will be successful - he is torn between keeping his past a secret or confessing that his whole fortune and career are built on a single dishonest event.

His wife, a wide-eyed innocent, truly believes Sir Robert to be an ideal man, an ideal husband, a perfectly honorable man with no feet of clay. While contemporary overtones in the banking world and modern politics are obvious, Taproot and director Lund wisely keep the Victorian period firmly in place. The timelessness of the play's themes are obvious and the lavish Victorian costumes and the period settings work beautifully. The audience is gently reminded that 'everything old is new again' without betraying the historical aspect of the original play. Candace Vance, like Childers, is truly believable, she as the innocent wife who cannot fathom disgrace in her husband's past.

A stage full of wonderfully quirky characters surround this happily married couple. Sir Robert's father, the brusque Lord Caversham, is delightfully played by Nolan Palmer. His sister, the sprightly Mabel, is vividly brought to life by Anne Kennedy Brady. His best friend, Lord Goring (a wisely cast Aaron Lamb), is clearly a stand-in for Wilde - he is the source of the play's most famous epigrams and witticisms. Often, Goring is cast to physically resemble the rotund Wilde, but here, as it should be, he is a contemporary of Sir Robert - and, thus, a suitable (of sorts) suitor to Mabel. While this Lord Goring is still clearly Wilde's onstage reflection ('he changes clothes five times a day and goes to the opera three times a week'), Lamb makes him a youthful playboy type instead of an overweight middle-aged dandy.

Nikki Visel is beautiful and wonderfully evil as the mysterious Mrs. Cheveley, the much-married, much-gossiped-about woman with a past who seems to have a strange hold over Sir Robert. She is the one who has the incriminating letter from his youthful indiscretion and she is the one behind the blackmail scheme. She doesn't want money - her many marriages have given her that - but she does want his support in the upcoming vote on the South American canal that is clearly not in England's best interest. One of the play's best, wittiest lines describes her impact in the opening scene. As one sharp-tongued woman notes: 'she wore far too much rouge and not enough clothing.' Visel has often played the innocent at Taproot. Not here - she is a sleek version of sin-on-a-stick in her clinging heliotrope velvet evening gown in Act One.

Pam Nolte is another delight in the large supporting cast. Her Lady Markby - a woman 'who talks more and says less than anyone' - is a polished characterization. The rest of the cast is simply perfect. Lund cleverly costumes the stagehands as servants in the Victorian homes of the script, making set changes flow smoothly and visually interesting. While all of the technical work is fine, special attention must go to the costume designs of Nanette Acosta. Her evening gowns in Act One are beautiful and correctly reflect character. Lady Chiltern's graceful tea gown in the last scene is especially notable - it sums up her delicate character and her understated position in the play and in her husband's life. As one character notes of their school years, 'she always got the good conduct prize.' While it is meant as a put-down in the scene's context, it does describe Lady Chiltern perfectly.

An Ideal Husband continues with evening and Saturday matinee performances through October 22. Senior and student discounts are available, and Taproot is an active participant in the Arts Crush program that runs through the month. Check with the box office at (206) 781-9707 for ticket details. Highest recommendation. Check it out.

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