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The Philadelphia Story — Shaw Festival — Festival Theatre

Shaw_Philadelphia_WebGallery10Just when you think you know a piece so well, a production of it comes along that not only surprises you but reveals new facets, including exponentially more depth, that catapult a play from a nice example of its genre to a work that comments incisively on matters such as love, maturity, class structure, and snobbery.

Being a native Philadelphian and a lifelong devotee of Katharine Hepburn, I have been drawn to “The Philadelphia Story” since the first time I encountered it on a “Late Show” or some such movie anthology when I was a child. In addition to Hepburn, George Cukor’s 1940 film features my two favorite actors, James Stewart and Cary Grant. It tells the story set in a Main Line with which I’m somewhat familiar. Later I learned Philip Barry’s model for the lead character, Tracy Lord, is Hope Montgomery Scott, some of  whose relatives I would meet and get to know. (I loved that with all their money, the Montgomerys and Scotts tended to drive the most basic Ford available at a given time. The known wealthy don’t have to put on airs. They just buy ready transportation.)

The 1956 musical version, “High Society,” with a Philadelphian, Grace Kelly, in the lead, reinforced my affection for “The Philadelphia Story.” I was really thrilled when I finally got to see the Barry play on stage with yet another Philadelphian, Blythe Danner, in the lead.

Considering the number of times I’ve seen, read, or acted aloud (to myself) this particular piece, my fear was I’d recite it along with the Shaw Festival cast when I saw its production of “The Philadelphia Story.” I’m that much a diehard. To this day, if a morning is sunny, I salute the sun, go into Hepburn  voice, and say, “Good for you, God!”

My close association with the piece is why Dennis Garnhum’s staging floored me.  The director, and a cast that includes Moya O’Connell, Fiona Byrne, Patrick McManus, Sharry Flett, and Jeff Meadows found a texture in “The Philadelphia Story” I had not noticed. Ever!

In my experience, Barry’s play had been done primarily as a storytelling exercise. Plot and strong characters dominated. The story was breezily pleasant with some well-placed one-liners and good solid roles from which an actor could make definite hay, but “The Philadelphia Story” registered, fondly, as an amiably amusing flapdoodle that was one of the better of the well-made plays with strong heroines written in its era.  It was not a play I regarded as resonating beyond the final moments of its performance or that gave one much to think about, except maybe for how well Barry drew Tracy Lord.

I should be embarrassed at how dismayingly I underestimated Philip Barry. Days, and now weeks after seeing it, Garnhum’s “Philadelphia Story” continues to resonate. In his hands, Barry’s champagne-like amusement has something salient to say about people in love, about a woman who has to grow up in addition to getting older and more mature, and about attitudes towards wealth and journalism that go beyond superficial flippancy. Moya O’Connell gives Tracy great dimension. She becomes more than the centerpiece of a smart, fizzy comedy. She is a woman who has new perceptions she needs to filter into her complacent mindset about life and people. She is someone who has to take life with genuine seriousness instead of using her money, her brains, and her rebellious spirit to ram her way. however charmingly or entertainingly,  through any situation.

She is a person who emerges from being a callow, spoiled brat with enough wit to dominate to being an adult woman who is able to read situations, make sound rather than rash decisions, and pursue life and love on her terms instead of for the sake of carefree sensationalism.

From these paragraphs, you can see already how Tracy Lord evolves from being a bright and entertaining flibbertigibbet to a woman of the verge of major behavioral breakthrough. Watching O’Connell at work, you see the metamorphosis of a headstrong person, who thinks she’s is charge of her fate, to a thoughtful human who will retain all of her humor and individuality but who be able to enjoy them more because she sees the world more realistically and can use her native gifts of brashness and intelligence to fulfill genuine wishes, as opposed to chasing fancies that come into her head as the next challenging thing to do. Perhaps.

O’Connell’s versatile portrait of Tracy infuses Garnhum’s entire production. Characters who seem to be general types transform into more dimensional human beings. Ric Reid’s Uncle Willy is no longer a functionary role that gets a few laughs and allows Tracy to hatch a plot. He is a man who can come through in a pinch. Fiona Byrne’s news photographer, Liz Imbrie, displays great empathy and depth while being able to receive comfort from Tracy in return. Jeff Meadows performs the miracle of making Tracy’s brother, Sandy Lord, memorable and entirely integral to Barry’s plot. No one playing Sandy previously left the slightest impression. Meadows’s Sandy was an ally to his sisters and parents and reacted noticeably to the men who seemed to vie for Tracy’s already promised hand — her fiancé, George Kittredge, a magazine writer, Macaulay Connor, and her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven.

Tracy’s parents, played by Sharry Flett and Juan Chioran, also become more than supports to Tracy’s story. Flett kindly but firmly disciplines her younger daughter, Dinah, while being able to be a compassionate friend to Tracy. Chioran has authority and self-possession that belies the initial impression that he doesn’t care about his family or take much interest in being the head of it.

All around, Garnhum supplies touches that make “The Philadelphia Story” a more substantial experience than it has been. He and his cast are to be congratulated for making what seemed like a light piece into a work that is thought-provoking and that gets you involved on ever deeper levels.

I have some cavils about accents and wardrobe I’ll get into in a bit, but in general, the Shaw’s “Philadelphia Story” is about as rewarding and eye-opening a piece of theater as you will find. Barry’s play provides all the pleasure it always has while Garnhum’s staging reveals the playwright to have a perceptive eye and deep instincts about how to depict what he knows on stage. Barry is among the people who benefit from Garnhum’s artistry. This well-played, well-planned shows both how taut and verbally dexterous the author’s script is.

Tracy Lord is already a force to be reckoned with when we meet her. Smart and commanding, she has the energy and posture of one who is accustomed to speaking without being challenged. At least not successfully, or in a way that would spare the challenger regret about ever having taken on Tracy as an adversary.

Tracy is a flirter with life. She is a woman of whims and moods who takes things into her head and acts on them impulsively. Marriage is one of those ephemeral interests, and Tracy, a divorcee, is about to embark into matrimony for the second time. Her fiancé is a self-made businessman, George Kittredge, who is so involved with his job, he would interrupt open-heart surgery to take a call that leads to more sales of the coal he peddles.

Tracy claims to admire his industry. Her first husband, Dexter, is more from her class, but he is not much interested in work, preferring to spend his time and independent fortune on pastimes like travel and sailing. His marriage to Tracy is reported to have been tempestuous and possibly physical, although I’m not quite clear on who assaulted whom.

Tracy envisions smooth currents in her marriage to George. She believes she will fit in nicely among the other wives of coal industry magnates in Luzerne County, Pa. and looks forward to her life as a doyenne of Wilkes-Barre (which locally is pronounced “Wilkes-Bai-reh” but at the Shaw is pronounced “Wilkes-Barr”).

Tracy turns any notion she has into a paradise, then becomes crestfallen and cynical when things don’t pan out as they did in her ideal picture.

Flightiness doesn’t make Tracy bothersome or irritating. It adds to her éclat and makes her entertaining. Cutting or observational, she always has something amusing or funny to say, and O’Connell doesn’t miss a beat in bringing Barry’s comedy to the fore.

Garnhum and O’Connell can go on throughout the production keeping Tracy the queen of the caustic and a hail-fellow-well-met free spirit. In terms of Barry’s story, the results would be about the same.

Luckily for us, the director and actress choose to go farther. They make this night before her second marriage a turning point in Tracy’s life. The way O’Connell plays Tracy, she is not only rescued from a mistake, but she learns to see life from more angles and incorporates what she sees into what she thinks and how she acts. Champagne and a conk on the head don’t explain Tracy’s change. Being exposed to a wider range of human beings and getting insight into who, and what, delights her does.

O’Connell’s Tracy is on an overnight journey that will alter her perspective forever. In a way, this flash of self-realization is consistent with every play on the Shaw schedule for 2014. It’s a season for people coming to their senses, in particular their romantic senses, and O’Connell’s Tracy leads the way by beginning “The Philadelphia Story” a quick-witted energetic aging debutante and ending it a mature woman so in command of her talents, they are destined to make her happy instead of spurring her to a constant search for the next fancy that might fulfill her.

Part of Tracy’s transformation can be credited to her exposure to the newspeople her brother has arranged to cover her wedding to Kittredge and her sister’s instigation to have C.K. Dexter Haven visit the Lords the afternoon before Tracy’s nuptials.

Macaulay Connor and Liz Imbrie represent a gossip rag that purports to tell  folks throughout the U.S. know how the privileged class lives. Connor, called Mike, and Liz are not quite starving artists, but they need their journalistic assignments to keep them with a roof and food until Mike’s books and Liz’s more advanced photography receive enough acclaim to earn them a better wage. As Liz says when she believes she will lose her job at the magazine, “Belts will be worn a little tighter this year.”

Mike and Liz have street smarts and more than a little taste and sophistication, but they are working class people who need jobs while everyone around them in the Lords’ mansion is well-heeled enough to opt for full-time leisure if he or she chooses.

The journalists  have been given access to the Lord-Kittredge wedding because Sandy, also a writer, negotiated with their editor permission for him to publish a photo spread with commentary about a society shindig in exchange for killing  a damaging story about the Lord patriarch, Seth. Mike and Liz look askance at the Lords with all of their ease and some of their discontent. The Lords are no less miffed at having interlopers at a ceremony that should be limited to invited guests. Many today may applaud Tracy’s stated opinion on news hounds. “Philadelphia Story” audiences certainly appreciate the tricks Tracy and Dinah play on the reporters before they lose interest in shamming and decide to be themselves and see what comes of it in print.

In all productions of “The Philadelphia Story,” each class learns something about the other that softens their prejudice. Garnhum heightens the differences between Mike and Liz and the Lords by emphasizing the journalists’ more lofty credentials in literary and art circles and, in doing so, lets the Shaw audience see more clearly what might cause the change in each party’s attitude towards the other. Each side begins to see the other as human, with disparate incomes but with the same emotions, thoughts, and aspirations. Tracy realizes Mike is not a simply and solely a snake out to spread calumny that tickles the curiosity of the masses. Mike realizes she is a complicated woman who needs to know and control herself better, as most of us do. As Tracy and Mike get better acquainted, respect ensues and, in Mike’s case, feelings run deeper.

Liz, especially as played in the crackerjack urban style of Fiona Byrne, comes off as the most reasonable person on the Lord property this wedding weekend. Byrne portrays her as  a wise woman and a good sport who has an astutely apt remark for any occasion but who personifies the average person scratching out a living. More than Mike, Liz has the manners to be gracious in the Main Line setting and is willing to enjoy a little working vacation amid the Lords’ luxury. Byrne’s Liz also makes it clear she knows everything that is going on and has something amusingly arch to say about it. Even about a pass made at her by Uncle Willie.

Garnhum’s “The Philadelphia Story” plays like a slice of life rather than as a standard romantic comedy. He makes Barry’s play into a work of art that transcends its period or basic plot.

I like, I’m sure you can tell,  the difference between his production and others I’ve seen, but I have a few small bones to pick.

One involves C.K. Dexter Haven. Although the character has the same lines in this production he always does, he seems to fade into the background and be rendered unimportant to the main action. Though less crucial to the overall story,  Sandy and Uncle Willie make a stronger impression.

Dexter has to stand for everything Tracy could not appreciate while her life was a series of one enthusiasm after another, as if projects and not purpose made existence exciting. At the Shaw, he seemed like a minor figure in the landscape.

There are some fine scenes with Tracy and Dexter, played with appeal by Gray Powell. The sequence in which they are reminiscing about their “yare” yacht, the True Love, is warm and engaging. But it doesn’t cause fireworks. You don’t see the frisson of rekindling interest. The relationship between Tracy and Dexter doesn’t appear to be as romantic as it does friendly. This seeming indifference, more nostalgia than renewed arousal or interest, contrasts with passages between Tracy and Mike that show danger on the hoof as regards Tracy’s upcoming wedding.

Powell’s Dexter has, in some way, to be more prominent. He seems to appear only at opportune dramatic moments rather than blending into the weekend as a constant and active participant.

Another cavil is the accent the Lords use.

One thing any self-aware Philadelphian tries to do as soon as possible is lose his or her Philadelphia accent, one of the most plebeian and grating in the world. The Main Line accent is a little different from the usual Philadelphia patois, but the Shaw cast is overdoing it, sounding more British or Mid-Lantic than like tosh Radnor folk. (Katharine Hepburn’s speech was as much influenced by New London as by Bryn Mawr.) Frankly, I doubt anyone but a Philadelphians would notice the strangeness of the Lords’ speech. In a way, I’m grateful it’s inaccurate because what O’Connell, Flett, Reid, etc. are saying sounds better than authentic Philadelphian. I was amused at the attempt to bring Bryn Mawr to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

And then there’s the clothes designer William Schmuck chose for Tracy’s younger sister, Dinah, and Dexter.

I can’t imagine Wanamaker’s, Nan Duskin, Strawbridge’s, or any Philadelphia emporium owning up to selling the dresses in which Schmuck clothed Tess Benger as Dinah. Tracy and Mrs. Lord look fine, but Dinah wears ugly prints that make her look age 12 instead of the 16 she is. Dinah’s frocks kept distracting me, as I wondered where they came from and why Margaret Lord would permit her daughter to wear them.

Dexter’s outfits are just a bit too modern for the period. Relaxed guy that he is, one can see him today eschewing the shirts and ties the other men in the production wear for casual clothes, but the solid V-neck over the white T-shirt, and the Phillies cap that could only be from this century, are a bit startling. An off-white cabled tennis sweater, with Penn or Princeton colors  alongside the V-neck would have been better. The baseball cap should be lost altogether.

I mentioned my criticisms were cavils. They were more inconsistencies I noticed than anything that did egregious harm to Garnhum’s production or the enjoyment of it. So much of what Garnhum accomplished was perfect and enlightening, the few glitches seemed to stand out more.

The Shaw cast is uniformly excellent. This includes Gray Powell, who is a stalwart and admirable Dexter even if he is not a dominant one.

Patrick McManus is totally natural as Mike. You barely know a role is being played, McManus slips into Mike’s character so snugly.

Like O’Connell, Byrne, and Flett, McManus lets you see many sides of Mike. He is not the resentful, judgmental reporter he seems to me at the top of Barry’s play. McManus’s Mike is an observer. You can see him practicing what I call “authorial distance” and taking in everything he sees in Radnor to describe it accurately in his magazine piece.

Mike’s attraction to Tracy happens as simply and organically as everything else McManus does with this part.

Jeff Meadows plays Sandy as a regular guy, whose time earning a living in New York has given him the perspective Tracy is about to gain. Meadows lets you see Sandy’s competence and his easy manner of getting the other Lords to follow his advice when he needs to get them out of a jam.

Tess Benger is a pesky little instigator as Dinah, the youngest child and the one who can get away with the most murder.

Thom Marriott is appropriately matter-of-fact and rule-bound as Kittredge, who would never be able to tame or tolerate Tracy’s impulsive rampages.

Juan Chioran plays Seth Lord with authority. He also conveys the love he has for his family, including his wife, Margaret, on whom he is known to cheat.

Aside from Dinah’s wardrobe, William Schmuck did a fine job with costumes and a magnificent job with the various rooms and patios of the Lord mansion.

Kevin Lamotte’s lighting turned rooms beautifully awash in sunlight and bathed the Lord patio and pool in lovely moonlight. Good for you, Kevin!

“The Philadelphia Story” runs through Saturday, October 25 at the Festival Theatre of the Shaw Festival, 10 Queen’s Parade, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Showtimes are staggered as “The Philadelphia Story” is performed in repertory. Tickets range from $113 to $35 CDN and can be obtained by calling 1-800-511-SHAW (1-800-511-7429) or by going online to www.shawfest.com.

 

 

 

 

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