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Michael Butler as Robert Chiltern and Julie Eccles as Gertrude Chiltern in An Ideal Husband, California Shakespeare Theater

Although it's more than a century old, there is probably more contemporary wisdom and insight in Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" than you'd find in most brand-new plays.

And it's all delivered with such wit and delicious turn of phrase that you wish you could somehow live in a world created by Wilde. Such a world never existed; it's all clever illusion from the mind of the Irish master, so you have to be satisfied watching productions like the one that opened Saturday at Cal Shakes' Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda.

Artistic director Jonathan Moscone, who continues to prove himself one of the finest comedy directors going, has polished this jewel of a political and romantic comedy to a high gloss. It is a surprisingly meaty script that manages to skewer the notion of honor in politics, honesty in relationships, and the idea of truth as some sort of absolute.

Comfortably wealthy Gertrude Chiltern (Julie Eccles) believes her husband, Robert (Michael Butler), is the finest, most honorable and moral man in all of England. He isn't, of course. And the secret scandal upon which he has built both his career and his fortune threatens to become completely unraveled at a party in the Chiltern home.

Mrs. Cheveley (Stacy Ross), a woman with a past who also remembers everyone else's past "'— particularly the scandalous ones — shows up looking for a favor from Chiltern.

It seems that as a young man just starting out, he spilled some state secrets about the Suez Canal to a man who became very rich using the information before it became public. And, in turn, Chiltern's favor netted a lovely chunk of change for the young man, who went on to become the Mr. Clean of Great Britain's political world.


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Mrs. Cheveley not only knows the information, but has proof of Chiltern's indiscretion. And, she tells him, unless he is willing to do her a favor involving another proposed canal project, she will blow the whistle. That would ruin Chiltern's political career and his marriage as well.

This touches off a chain of circumstances (not to mention beautifully droll dialogue) that keeps the story rolling cleverly along and allows it to spoof politics of the era — and take a wickedly funny look at relationships at the same time.

Butler and Ross create strong characters who are a delight to watch in love and war. Eccles, as the loving wife, reveals a great range as her character grows in sophistication and knowledge as the play unfolds. Elijah Alexander creates a memorable and hugely funny character in Chiltern's pal, Lord Goring. And Danny Scheie, who is becoming almost a Cal Shakes regular (and a great addition), plays two small character parts, Vicomte De Nanjak and Phipps, delightfully.

Annie Smart's set creates a Victorian elegance, helped in no small way by the costumes designed by Meg Neville and the lighting and sound by Scott Zielinski and Jeff Mockus.

And it all comes together in one Wilde, magical night.

Reach Pat Craig at pcraig@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Theater review
  • WHAT: "An Ideal Husband"
  • WHERE: Bruns Amphitheater, Gateway Drive at Highway 24, Orinda
  • WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays through July 27
  • RUNNING TIME: 2 hours, 40 minutes
  • TICKETS: $40-$62; 510-548-9666, www.calshakes.org