Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Philadelphia Story: This One’s for Laughter, Not Lamentation

Erin Bickler (Tracy), Richard Cohn-Lee (George), James Van Eaton (Sandy),
Nolan Morantte (Dexter), Dan Kelsey (Uncle Willie), Allie Andresen
(Dinah), Nate Walker (Mike)

By Tina Arth

The title The Philadelphia Story used to conjure up images of Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart on film in the classic 1940 romantic comedy. These days, people’s first reaction is more likely to be “you mean Philadelphia, the Tom Hanks movie about AIDS?”  Director Doreen Lundberg at Beaverton Civic Theatre is doing her part to redress this grievous slight by offering a thoroughly engaging version of playwright Philip Barry’s original work. The play (also starring Katherine Hepburn) opened on Broadway in 1939 and ran for an impressive 417 performances; while the overwhelming success of the subsequent movie ultimately overshadowed the original stage version, both are well worth watching.

The Philadelphia Story tells a tale of the Lord family, members of Philadelphia’s old money “main line” set. Stubborn and judgmental elder daughter Tracy has a taste for the unconventional – she wears trousers, astonished the local socialites two years previously by eloping with neighbor C. K. Dexter Haven (then added fuel to the fire by divorcing him), and is now on the eve of her wedding to the rigidly upright, very plebian and nouveau riche George Kittredge. Efforts to block an obviously unsuitable match come from several corners, including her younger sister Dinah, quirky Uncle Willie, and ex-husband Dex. Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie, two reporters from a tacky tabloid are on site (supposedly incognito, but everybody is in on the deception) to write up the wedding (“The Philadelphia Story”) for their scandal rag, and their presence is tolerated as part of an elaborate bargain to keep the magazine from publishing the shocking details of an affair between family patriarch Seth Lord and a New York dancer. Tracy’s drunken midnight swim with reporter Mike throws a monkey wrench into the wedding plans – not a trivial problem, since she had already cheated everyone out of a wedding two years earlier – but of course in the end it all works out nicely, although not exactly as planned.

It must be exceptionally challenging to bring an individual take to the role of Tracy Lord, as it’s so closely associate with Hepburn’s performance (and was actually written for her). Actor Erin Bickler has the advantage that she bears little physical resemblance to her iconic predecessor, and she has enough performing experience that she knows how to pay homage without imitation. Like some other cast members, she is at her funniest when her character is engaged in deliberate parody of her position as an elitist socialite. However, the real star for me is Tracy’s younger sister Dinah (Allie Andresen). Andresen is beyond charming as the enthusiastic, slightly gawky adolescent trying to emulate her idolized sister’s sophisticated, world-weary ennui, and she delivers some hilarious malapropisms with perfect timing and naïveté.

Dan Kelsey (“Uncle Willie”) is another exceptionally fun character to watch as he melds his wicked sense of humor with his genuine fondness for the Lord girls – illustrated perfectly when he drily emulates Dinah’s mispronunciation of “illicit.”
Speaking of dry, there’s Nolan Morantte (C. K. Dexter Haven). Like Bickler, he’s got big shoes to fill – his character is most identified with the movie portrayal by the great Cary Grant. Morantte has just the right touch – cool, restrained, seemingly uninvolved and affectionately contemptuous while he subtly ensures the right outcome for his soon-to-be-ex-wife. For most of three acts it is not obvious that he still loves her – but that’s exactly how the role needs to be played.

Set designer Alex Woodard has done a nice job of capturing the “old money” feel of the Lord home, and the three-act format allows for the major scene changes to take place during intermission, so there are no scene-change delays. Tonja Schreiber’s costumes are a real asset – capturing the differences in social class between reporters and socialites, George Kittredge’s tightly wound stuffiness and Dexter Haven’s casual elan, and the rebellious flavor of the two Lord girls.

Director Lundberg has assembled a cast and crew capable of doing justice to a witty, sophisticated period piece that holds up really well. I suspect that many audience members will be tempted, as I am, to track down the movie so they can spend a bit more time with the Lord family.

The Philadelphia Story Songs runs through Saturday, March 12th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, 12375 SW Fifth Street, Beaverton, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays.

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