Heidi Berg doesn't think her character, Mrs. Cheveley, in Walking Shadow Theatre Company's An Ideal Husband is particularly evil. It's all a matter of perspective.
"The most radical thing I will say about her is that if the character was being played by a man, we wouldn't think she was evil, but that she was driven," Berg says.
"She seems pretty fucking evil to me," counters Adam Whisner, who plays Sir Robert Chiltern.
The two roles are pitted against each other in Oscar Wilde's play, as she attempts to blackmail the honorable member of upright society for a long-ago transgression. That slippery sense runs through the entire production, starting with the script, which merges comedy and drama in a piece that pokes at the assumptions of Victorian culture from top to bottom.
An Ideal Husband has been on Walking Shadow's "to do" list for years. "It's the only Oscar Wilde piece that was on the list. It had the right balance of moral grey areas," says director and company member Amy Rummenie. "This has lots of plot twists, with an undercurrent of blackmail. These characters are really digging at where they relate to their time period. We have a super-progressive woman who is matched against another super-progressive woman. One is using sexuality and charm to advance, the other character is using intelligence, modesty, and devotion."
"They blatantly hate each other," adds Whisner.
For the company, the sheer density of the piece, along with Wilde's innate wit, has made for extra challenges.
"This hasn't been an easy one," says David Beukema, who plays Lord Goring. "He writes so beautifully, but he writes so much. His words are so witty and beautiful; you can't stay mad at him. You want to get all those lines perfect. It's like a giant game of Tetris."
"I never had the kind of training that I think this sort of thing requires. My diaphragm has been sore, but I have learning things," Whisner says.
"At the same time, we are worried about pace. The language is so foreign to modern ears," says Beukema.
"It was the role I wanted, but I was intimated by it," Berg Says. "I've started to get comfortable while working on it, but now, a week out, I'm terrified. I feel like we've accomplished a ridiculous amount. If I allowed every alliteration to land, we would never get through the first act."
In the end, the key is to tell the story. "It's a really timely show. The idea of when do you let go of the crimes you did in the youth, and how do the machinations of politics work are important here. Who really runs things?" Berg says.
IF YOU GO:
An Ideal Husband
Friday through February 25
Red Eye Theater 15 W. 14th St., Minneapolis
For information, call 612.375.0300 or visit online.