Actor David Adkins likes to climb mountains, but theater is a mountain he was once hesitant to scale.
Although the former Marylander displayed a gift for acting as a student at McDonogh School, he says that, after he graduated, "I put theater behind me."
Now, however, Adkins has been a full-time actor for a decade, and when Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" opens at Center Stage tonight, he will be making his first professional appearance in his home state.
His character, Lord Goring, was the playwright's alter ego in this 1894 political comedy revolving around a politician with an immaculate reputation, Sir Robert Chiltern, whose marriage and career are suddenly threatened by a revelation from his past.
"The play, in a way, is about forgiveness," Adkins says. "Especially when you think of the times we're in now and what's going on with Clinton and Bush and the fact that we have a desire to hold people to an ideal that is unattainable."
As Lord Goring, Adkins plays Sir Robert's best friend and confidante. Wilde's stage directions describe Goring as "a flawless dandy." But as Adkins explained before a recent rehearsal, the term had a somewhat different meaning from what we think of today.
"A dandy is not a fop," says Adkins, dressed conservatively in jeans, a white shirt and navy blazer. "The tenet of a dandy is that the man himself is an art object. Many people would say a dandy is affected. The dandy would say people living under the norms of society and dressing the way society dictates are the ones who are affected."
Adkins believes one of Goring's comments to Sir Robert is central to understanding his dandified character: "Everything is dangerous, my dear fellow. If it wasn't so, life wouldn't be worth living."
It's not surprising that a sense of danger appeals to an actor whose hobby is mountain climbing. "I know that he is adventuresome," says Adkins' mother, Carolyn A. Sisk of Columbia, a retired teacher. "I guess climbing Mount Rainer a couple of times is living dangerously." But, she adds, "I think he's a willing risk taker. I think there's a great difference between that and living dangerously. One may be interested in taking risks, but knowing where you're going and how you're going to get there makes a difference."
One indication of Adkins' interest in taking risks is that he turned down the chance to understudy the role of Goring in director Peter Hall's 1996 Broadway production of "An Ideal Husband." The actor had made his Broadway debut in 1993, playing a small role and understudying a larger one in a revival of George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan." "It drove me mad. I didn't feel I'd learned anything," he says.
So instead of "An Ideal Husband," he accepted the considerably larger risk of starring in an off-Broadway revival of a 17th century British tragedy called "Venice Preserv'd." It turned out to be the biggest flop of his career but not a risk he regrets taking. "I actually learned a lot about myself as a performer," he says.
A few years later, when the opportunity arose to play Goring at Center Stage -- a theater he attended as a child -- Adkins jumped at it.
Born in Easton, Adkins, 36, moved to Columbia with his family when he was in second grade. He started McDonogh in seventh grade. In his sophomore year, he unexpectedly won a role in a school production of "Romeo and Juliet," directed by faculty member John Van Meter, who became a life-long friend.
Adkins went on to appear in four more school shows in the next three years, but when he entered Dartmouth College -- his late father's alma mater -- he turned away from theater. He played lacrosse and soccer and went mountaineering but couldn't commit to any specific course of study. "I was unhappy," he says. "I realized I didn't know what I was doing, why I was in college."
In his junior year, he came home, took a few theater classes and acted in a couple of plays at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where he counts faculty members Xerxes Mehta and Sam McCready among his influences. That summer, he apprenticed at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass., where he would eventually appear in 25 productions.
His turning point came when actor David Schramm -- a graduate of the esteemed Juilliard School who went on to have a long-running role in the TV series "Wings" -- took him to see the school in New York. Adkins knew immediately that this was where he wanted to be.
He auditioned and was accepted. "I walked downstairs and called my mom and said, 'I'm going to be an actor.' I think she was very happy after they revived her," he kids.
In the years since, Adkins has acted at regional theaters across the country. Married to fellow Juilliard alum Laura Linney ("The Truman Show," "Primal Fear"), he spent the last 18 months in California, where he played guest roles on several TV shows, made a pilot and had a small part in his first movie, "The Thomas Crown Affair."
He estimates that he and Linney have only seen each other for two weeks over the past five months, and more time together will have to wait. After all, he says, his agent made him an offer he couldn't refuse: "You're perfect for Lord Goring, and it's in Baltimore."
'An Ideal Husband'
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, and 1 p.m. Oct. 13. Through Oct. 24