What happens when your Oscar Wilde comedy isn't consistently funny? In the case of Walking Shadow's production of An Ideal Husband, it leads to a frustrating evening, where plenty of good work gets overshadowed by a lot of clever dialogue falling flat to the floor. It's a case where the drama at the heart of the play provides far more thrills than the bon mots and jokes.
Wilde's play follows plenty of twists and turns along the way, but centers on the conflict between upstanding Sir Robert Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley. You see, in his youth, Sir Robert sold a state secret and made the foundation of his fortune. Eighteen years later, Mrs. Cheveley has the proof and intends to blackmail him to support a boondoggle that will make her a fortune.
Sir Robert's career is at an impasse, and his wife, Gertrude, and good friend Lord Goring get drawn into the battle as well. The machinations of the plot are clever and interesting, but really are there to provide a foundation for Wilde's wit, and for a poking at the high and mighty, but often corrupt, morals of Victorian society.
Our four leads do a solid job with both the humor and the drama, especially David Beukema as Lord Goring, who is very much a stand-in for the playwright. His wit doesn't sound forced, so the humor often lands sweetly. Adam Whisner is fine as the solid, strained, and conflicted Sir Robert, as is Sara Ochs as his wife. She is the only character who really is allowed to play her emotions full out, and she takes advantage of that, riding right up to the line of melodrama without diving full in.
Heidi Berg plays the delightfully evil Mrs. Cheveley up to 11, though we do get a sense of what motivates her as well. Constrained by the stultifying English society, she has escaped to the Continent, only returning now to play out her plot. Berg, like the character, is quick on her feet, turning disadvantage into advantage several times through the show.
The weaknesses start to show once you get beyond the four central players. While some of the performers do a solid job (Alan Sorenson as Goring's father, and Teresa Marie Doran as Sir Robert's sister come to mind), others haven't mastered the delivery needed to make the humor sing. This makes for a couple of painful scenes in the first half of the play when clever line after clever line dies on the vine, making it sound more like someone trying to sound like Oscar Wilde, but failing miserably.
It is a herculean task to wrestle a play this dense into shape. Apart from the aforementioned moments, director Amy Rummenie keeps a steady hand, making the action clear and sharp. The second act -- which focuses much more on the central characters -- helps this as well.