Something Amiss in "Philadelphia"

By Geary Danihy

As soon as the lights come up on the first scene of Ivoryton Playhouse’s production of “The Philadelphia Story” and the actors begin delivering their lines, you sense something is amiss, something that makes you feel twice-removed from what is happening up on the stage. It takes several minutes into the play before it becomes obvious what that problem is: the cast has been kidnapped by the play’s style.


To understand what I mean, you have to remember that Philip Barry’s play, first produced in 1939, deals with the Lord family, denizens of Philadelphia’s high society as it existed prior to World War II. You also have to know that Barry wrote the play as a vehicle for Katherine Hepburn, who created the role of Tracy Lord on Broadway. Thus, in putting on the play one must consider the manners and mores of the City of Brotherly Love’s version of high society as well as Hepburn’s unique and idiosyncratic acting style. However, you can’t have such considerations dominate, which it would appear director Jacqueline Hubbard has allowed to occur, at least in the play’s first act.


In “Thinking Like A Director,” Michael Bloom explains the problem by noting that in producing stylized plays what often happens is that the style “imposes a gloss that nullifies the heart and soul of the actor.” Bloom expands on this idea thusly: “Instead of embodying characters, actors in these productions engage in what voice teacher Kristen Linklater has called ‘outward signage’ – the superficial vocalizing of a role without internalizing it.”


Such “outward signage” is obvious from the opening moments of the play, which has Margaret Lord (Donna Schilke) in discussion with her daughter Tracy (Brenda Withers) about the young socialite’s upcoming wedding, with younger daughter Dinah (Jennifer Leigh Cohen) adding her two cents. As directed by Hubbard, Withers in these opening scenes is in constant motion, a runway model crossing and re-crossing the stage as she bites off pieces of dialogue. When not in motion she is striking a pose. As Withers stalks the stage, Cohen gushes and emotes (she’s so initially over-the-top then when the role later calls for her to actually be so, it seems redundant). The sum effect is that what we see is a caricature of an upper-class family, an effect enhanced by the appearance of Tracy’s brother, Alexander (Thomas Layman).
Layman delivers his lines as if his mouth and nose have been lined with purple velvet – vowels and consonants are mashed together in pseudo-upper-class fashion so much so that it’s often difficult to understand what he is saying, a major problem since it falls to his character to delineate several important plot points.


The presentation of the Lord family is so inflated one hopes that with the appearance of the two hard-nosed reporters, Macaulay Connor (Matthew DeCapua) and Elizabeth Imbrie (Carolline Strong), some pins might be stuck into the bloated affair. Alas, though Strong is sufficiently biting, DeCapua seems more dazed than derisive. Hence, the interplay between the two, meant to be sharp and caustic, is oddly muted, with a lot of Barry’s social commentary lost in the process.


The production’s mood is such that as other characters appear – Tracy’s former husband, C. K. Dexter Haven (Christian Pedersen) and her fiancé, George Kitteredge (Geoffrey Murphy) – they seem flattened by the weight of it all. Fortunately, there’s a pre-nuptial party planned for the evening, and at the end of the first act, after Tracy has been labeled a goddess and an ice queen by both her Ex and her father, Seth (Bif Carrington III), she samples some champagne. It is the production’s salvation.


The second act has Tracy either inebriated or hung over, which takes away the possibility that she will do much strutting or posing. Thus hobbled, Withers finally allows Tracy’s character to come to the fore. Equally inebriated, DeCapua’s character also loosens up and the scenes between the two as they perform intellectual foreplay are extremely enjoyable. As if chains have fallen away, the other characters come to life, and what was in the first act plodding and formulaic now takes on a certain shimmer: timing seems sharper; dialogue now crackles. Style no longer dominates.


It’s difficult to say what “The Philadelphia Story” might have been with just a little more thought given to the design and staging. For example, the set designed by Tony Andrea nicely captures the style and elegance of the period, but then there are these French windows used to frame the patio scenes – surely there is a way to have them brought on stage that would not make them sound as if they are about to rattle themselves apart. Then there’s the costumes created by Pamela Puente – all period correct and appropriate (especially Tracy’s black slacks and top in the opening scenes), save for this rather eye-scratching dress Puente puts Withers in for her first meeting with the reporters – even in her wildest moments I don’t think Tracy Lord would wear something that can best be described as a brawl of colors.


The “almost got it” extends even to the program the Playhouse has come up with to promote the show. Inserted in the playbill is a sheet that someone can give to a friend to get $2 off the price of a ticket (and some lucky person wins dinner-for-two at Pip’s Wine Bar). Unfortunately, there’s no information on how a person can obtain a ticket – no box office phone number, no website address. It’s suggested that the friend bring the paper to the theater to buy a ticket – but no theater address is provided.


We don’t go to the theater to see what might have been, we go to see what is, and this production of Barry’s classic comedy is a one-wheel bicycle that takes the cast the entire first act to figure out how to ride. Once they do, the result is enjoyable, but one wishes that a second wheel had been provided; everything would have rolled along a lot more smoothly if it had.


“The Philadelphia Story” runs through Sunday, March 28. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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