Director James Cady’s envisioning of "The Philadelphia Story" achieves tolerance through wit; the Philip Barry play proffers ample screwball comedy alongside a hearty portion of philosophical inquiry.
‘Philadelphia Story’ Proves Witty Battle of Exes
BY BARRY GAINES
Director James Cady lovingly presenting a classic play from a bygone era, “The Philadelphia Story,” at The Vortex Theatre (2900 Carlisle NE). The opening night performance suggests the production needs polishing, but the play offers plenty of screwball comedy alongside a dose of philosophical wisdom.
Playwright Philip Barry wrote “The Philadelphia Story” specifically for his friend Katherine Hepburn, whose participation in a string of commercial failures landed her on a list of actors considered “box office poison.” Hepburn starred in the 1939 play and the subsequent, George Cukor-directed film in 1940. Both were wildly successful, and her acting career was back on solid footing.
The play is set during the 24 hours prior to Tracy Lord’s summertime garden wedding at her family home. Director Cady designed the sitting room and porch sets in white-on-white, and Carolyn Hogan’s costuming captures the period’s opulence. Two years earlier, Tracy eloped with C. K. Dexter Haven, whose drinking and punching led them to divorce. Now, Tracy plans to marry the upstanding George Kittredge, who has risen from coal miner to the mine manager.
Tracy’s mother, Margaret; younger sister, Dinah; brother, Sandy; and uncle, Willy, have all gathered for the wedding. Father Seth disgraced the family with a romantic affair, but he too attends, as does her ex-husband, Dexter. For narrative reasons as slender as they are complex, a reporter (Mike) and a photographer (Liz) from “Destiny” magazine join the wedding party; they’re working on an article on “fashionable Philadelphia” that prominently features the Lord family and the wedding.
During an alcohol-soaked rehearsal party, Tracy decides to throw her wealth and social position aside and figuratively lets her flame-red hair down. She finds an accomplice in handsome reporter Mike, not fiancé Kittredge. Tracy and Mike skinny-dip in the pool, scandalizing Kittredge and delighting Dexter. Everything works out for most of those present.
Playwright Barry’s dialogue is witty and snappy, and the acting is generally strong throughout, if sometimes a mite exaggerated. Micah Linford’s takes on the thankless task of portraying the nouveau riche Kittredge with aplomb, powerfully conveying his character’s sanctimonious self-righteousness. I enjoyed H.K. Phillips, who does sardonic well, in the underwritten role of Liz, a photographer who sees a lot.
The elder generation of characters offer spry performances: Carolyn Hogan as Margaret; Philip J. Shortell as Seth; and Colin Morgan as Willy. Shortell’s Seth has powerful exchanges with Tracy. Micah McCoy does fine as Sandy, a plotline lynchpin. Young Annie Elliott displays broad range in her energetic performance as teenager Dinah.
Three characters provide the play’s central conflict. Michael Weppler appeals as sensitive journalist Mike, who hides his thoughtful, poetic side beneath cynical machismo. His character becomes smitten with the real Tracy, the one beneath her veneer of societal perfection. Brennan Foster’s portrayal of once and future husband Dexter captures a winning insouciance.
Dexter and Tracy have known each other all their lives, and he believes he understands her. Naturally, Dexter points out her shortcomings: “It’s astonishing what money can do for people … Not too much, you know, just more than enough. Particularly for girls … She is a goddess, without patience for any kind of human imperfection.” Foster has previously worked with Sheridan K. Johnson, who plays Tracy, and the pair have definite chemistry.
As Tracy, Johnson is effervescent and striking. She manages to maintain a social aloofness while three men simultaneously fall in love with her. At the same time, her performance artfully suggests Tracy’s recognition she needn’t be intoxicated to free herself from self-imposed social constraints. That transition is great fun to watch.
In his director’s note, Cady confirms a lesson of tolerance shining through comedy: “What made me want to direct this play is the belief in second chances … to look at the world in a different way and accept the frailties of those we love and those who love us.” You won’t get a second chance to see Cady’s vision of “The Philadelphia Story.”
Barry Gaines, a Professor Emeritus at UNM and Administrator of the American Theater Critics Association, reports on local theater for ABQ Free Press.