Well, if Wilde's creativity had ceased with "An Ideal Husband," which premiered in 1895 just a few weeks before "Earnest," and if every production of that work were as incisive as the one currently being offered by Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company, the playwright's reputation would still rank high.
Like the Peter Hall staging I remember fondly from the 1990s, this version, directed by Keith Baxter with a refined ear for detail and timing, generates a sparkling, involving experience.
Baxter makes sure that there's sufficient weight and credibility behind the timeless points of the play — how an obsession with wealth for wealth's sake and a weakness for insider trading can erode the soul; how those in or power or seeking it can rationalize any personal misbehavior, while looking askance at others ("A man who can't talk morality twice a week to a large … immoral audience is quite over as a serious politician"); how people in love can lose perspective and, sometimes, common sense.
Have things changed so much since Wilde penned this play? Time and again, lines pop out with a fresh zing, as in this observation, which never struck me before: "Spies are of no use nowadays. Their profession is over. The newspapers do their work for them." Visions of WikiLeaks and the deported Russian bombshell dance in one's head.
As Sir Robert Chiltern, Gregory Wooddell is adept at revealing both the self-satisfied, every-hair-lacquered-down facade of a government official with a dark past, and the crushed, disheveled man beneath. Rachel Pickup has the tough task of making Lady Chiltern something more than a Victorian stereotype and she largely succeeds.
Emily Raymond jumps into the juicy role of the conniving, morality-challenged Mrs. Cheveley and makes the character wickedly appealing.
As Lord Goring, the dandy and quip-meister who serves as Wilde's own voice in the play, Cameron Folmar gives an assured performance. Sporting a green carnation in the opening scene — a favorite signal used by Wilde and other gay men in 1890s London — the actor takes over the stage in disarming fashion. He goes easy on the camp, which helps the character remain a plausible, rather endearing force with each plot twist.
The large supporting ensemble offers vibrant contributions, especially from Nancy Robinette as Lady Markby (her rich voice reminds me of the great film/stage character actress Mary Boland) and David Sabin as Goring's exasperated father (the actor compensates for a slippery British accent with terrific verbal flair). The role of a German diplomat in the first act (performed by Logan DalBello) doesn't match any version of the play I know, but the extra color doesn't hurt.
The set, designed by Simon Higlett, is an opulent feast, complemented by Robert Perdziola's equally sumptuous costumes and Peter West's lighting. Even the first scene change is turned into a visual treat, just another effective touch in this first-class presentation of a still-potent play.
If you go
"An Ideal Husband" runs through April 16 at Sidney Harmon Hall, 610 F St. N.W., Washington. Call 202-547-1122 or go to shakespearetheatre.org.