The work of Oscar Wilde has not yet become old or outdated. In fact, according to Laura W. Andruski, his stories are just as relevant and compelling today as they were during the last days of the Victorian era.
“In 1895, the year was rife with political scandal, and while that titillated the people back then, more than 100 years later it continues to fascinate us,” said Andruski, who is directing Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” for the Schenectady Civic Players, opening Friday and running for two weekends through March 28.
“We’re still very much intrigued by scandal. There’s a wonderful quote from the play. ‘A scandal used to lend charm to a man. Now they crush him.’ What was true in 1895 is also true in 2010.”
“An Ideal Husband” was first produced in London in January of 1895 when Wilde was already hugely successful. The play continued to poke fun at British high society, like most of Wilde’s work, and while its success cemented his status as a popular playwright, he found himself in jail by April for “gross indecency,” stemming from his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas.
Any reference to Wilde was left off the playbill and the marquee at London’s Haymarket Theatre. “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which he had already completed just after “An Ideal Husband,” also came out in 1895 and was his last popular play.
For Gazette theater writer Paul Lamar's review of this show, click here.
‘An Ideal Husband’
WHERE: Schenectady Civic Playhouse, 12 South Church St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and next Thursday; 8 p.m. March 26-27; and 2:30 p.m. March 28
HOW MUCH: $15
MORE INFO: 382-2081 or www.civicplayers.org
Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor for his “crime,” and when his time was up in May of 1897 he immediately left Great Britain and sailed to France. He died in Paris in 1900, destitute at the age of 46.
“He had been leading something of a double life, stepping out on his wife with a gentleman, and many of the characters in his plays also had their secrets,” said Andruski. “Despite its subject matter, ‘An Ideal Husband’ is a comedy, but the play is filled with wonderful insights into human behavior, and, being the work of Wilde, it entertains us with charm and style.”
The first two acts of “An Ideal Husband” are set at the home of Sir Robert Chiltern, an undersecretary for foreign affairs who, like Wilde, has some secrets of his own. Blackmail and political corruption are the two major themes of the play, while among the other featured characters are Lady Chiltern, Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheveley.
“I haven’t been in a Wilde play, but I have enjoyed watching them very much,” said Randy McConnach, who plays Lord Goring. “I really appreciate the English comedy of manners. There are things that everyone will find very funny, and then there is a level of sophistication and that dry wit of Wilde that you have to listen for. I think the play appeals to a wide variety of audiences.”
McConnach, who was also recently in “Beau Jest” at the Schenectady Civic Playhouse, is enjoying his first opportunity to play a character from one of Wilde’s plays.
“He’s sophisticated and somewhat self-absorbed, and it’s a very fun role to play,” said McConnach. “He has fun at all the other characters’ expense, but like all the other characters in the play, does he turn out not to be what he appears? Well, I don’t want to give away too much, and there are two ways to read it.”
Joining McConnach on stage will be Melissa Putterman Hoffmann as Mrs. Cheveley, Jonathan Janssen as Sir Robert Chiltern and Meighan Carivan-Esmond as Lady Chiltern.
“I love my character,” Putterman Hoffmann said of Mrs. Cheveley, the character who is blackmailing Sir Robert. “I’m a school social worker by day and I have a wonderful family. Nobody in my nontheater life is afraid of me, so it’s great to come to the theater and have all these wonderfully trained actors treat me like I’m a villain. It’s very powerful and it’s a lot of fun.”
Putterman Hoffmann has performed in a Wilde play before — she was Miss Prism in “The Importance of Being Earnest” — and she thoroughly enjoys the experience.
“I really love a play that is driven by the language,” she said. “The dialogue is so sparkling and there is nothing wasted. Everything a character says or does in a Wilde play is for some kind of effect.”
Another aspect of Wilde’s plays that typically entertains modern audiences is the set and costume design.
“Patricia Casey [costumes] and Duncan Morrison [set] are doing a great job for us, and our lighting director [Don Mealy] is also playing a big part in the production,” said Andruski, who also serves as the education director for the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany.
“We have beautiful Victorian costumes, but the set is a bit different, more austere, than what people might expect. We just chose to go a different route and rely more heavily on sound and light.”