It’s always fun to peer into the lives of the rich and famous. As a native Philadelphian, I found Christopher Overly’s revival of Phillip Barry’s 1939 Broadway hit a delightful throwback set amidst my hometown’s Main Line society, its wealth and power, privilege and arrogance. Originally written for the stage for Katherine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story is a light romantic comedy that, looking on the surface, seems as trite and superficial as the horsey set themselves. Digging deeper, however, one finds that the ways of the rich belie the same search for meaning as the rest of us poorer blokes.
A wedding is about to take place at the country home of Seth Lord outside Philadelphia. In a convoluted, whirlwind tale that takes place over the course of a weekend , Tracy Lord (Erica Miller), a spoiled, impulsive but “strikingly lovely girl of 24” is about to remarry for the second time. The local society rag wants to cover the “wedding of the year” and with the insider help of Tracy’s brother, Alexander “Sandy” Lord (Alex Hyder), two journalists, Macaulay “Mike” Connor (Erik Hatcher) and Elizabeth “Liz” Embrie (Nina Y. Marti) are planted as household guests to get the scoop in exchange for not exposing Tracy’s father, Seth Lord’s (Brian Binney) extramarital affair with a showgirl. Tracy’s ex-husband, fellow socialite C.K. Dexter Haven (Joshua Hampton), is still hanging around, however, and appears on the scene like an extra accessory that just won’t go away.
Tracy’s mother, Margaret Lord (with a wonderful performance by Rosalie Daelmans) and Tracy’s little sister Dinah Lord (Miranda Newheart) still have a fondness for Dexter whom Tracy impulsively divorced after 10 months of marriage because of Dexter’s imperfections and fondness for drinking. Tracy’s queenly ways are infused with an “unforgiving heart” and perfectionism. She’s intolerant of human weakness and her own haughtiness and strong will create a “virgin goddess” persona. Soon-to-be husband George Kittredge (Akili Brown) is a nouveau riche coal mining magnate and politico wannabe whom Tracy admires for his ability to pull himself up by the bootstraps although he was not born into privilege like her. Strong chemistry between Tracy and Mike begin to complicate matters, however, and leads to what looks like an affair on the night before the wedding. George and Dexter are witness to Tracy’s failing memory of exactly what happened after she and Mike are caught having been skinning dipping in the mansion pool.
Although George condescendingly forgives Tracy for any perceived transgression and wants to go forward with the wedding, Tracy returns her engagement ring to George while Mike offers to be the stand-in groom and marry her instead. But in a speech to a house full of waiting guests, there is a surprise. By the end of the story, true love prevails and the hard-hearted Tracy Lord learns what it means to be human, after all. The building suspense and surprising last minute turn of events as three suitors stand onstage facing the impetuous Tracy Lord, make the play entertaining to the very last moment.
It’s a big cast of characters who are entering and exiting continuously with just the right amount of stage movement and the pace builds from somewhat slow in the first act to a fast paced flurry in the final act. Two intermissions for this three act play affect its momentum. There’s also an earful of rich dialogue that makes it somewhat difficult to keep up with how the yarn is unraveling. And it would have been nice to hear the actors speak in that clipped Yankee accent of the monied rich.
Christopher Overly had a tall order to fill in directing this play, however. In program notes, he mentions the challenge of taking over the reins as the previous director bowed out and he was asked to direct it. He wasn’t at all familiar with this work. But with an excellent ensemble of actors and beautifully conceived and constructed set by Jane B. Wingard, nuanced lighting by Garrett R. Hyde, and perfect period costumes by Linda Swann, Overly’s presentation of The Philadelphia Story hits the mark and then some.
Erica Miller is simply mahvelous as the main character, the overly dramatic, red-headed hotmess socialite, Tracy Lord. She parodies the upper crust with just the right ilk of privileged disdain. Supporting her portrayal of the old Philadelphia Irish Catholic aristocracy, fellow cast members all do a fine job of bringing this yesteryear story to life. Of particular note is Gene Valendo who plays William “Uncle Willie” with an Alfred Doolittle reminisce, in a side line story. He’s a lovable lecherous lush who is not above pinching a tush or two, particularly Liz Imbrie’s. She’s a young, smart upstart journalist ably played by Nina Y. Marti with an understatement that balances the over-the-top drama queen of Tracy Lord and her puckish sister, Dinah, devilishly portrayed by Miranda Newheart.
Akili Brown appears just as you would imagine a self-made man to be—solid, serious and somewhat insecure. His George Kittredge has a different air around him; not rarified in contrast to Tracy’s breed, but grounded nonetheless. C.K. Dexter Haven, played with rich playboy flair by Joshua Hampton, has the sensitivity that comes from lessons learned from drinking a little too much but landing on one’s feet. Hampton’s Dexter is just what Tracy really needs to return her to reality. As would-be-writer/poet who is a only doing journalism to pay the bills, Erik Hatcher portrays Mike Connor exceeding well as an anti-rich liberal who comes to see the sameness between the rich and not-so-rich.
Brian Binney gives a strong performance as the likable but unabashedly flawed father, Seth Lord. The help staff, Thomas and Mac, dual roles terrifically played by Wendell Holland, and the two maids, Mary Retort-George (May) and Lily George (Elsie) who fling a mean feather duster.
It’s hard to believe that The Philadelphia Story has been around for more than 75 years on stage and screen. But it’s a timeless tale when you think about it. The conflicting dynamics between the haves and the have-nots, perfection and imperfection will be with us for some time to come. In the end, just being human will likely triumph.
2nd Star Productions’ The Philadelphia Story is a fun time in the theater, one you should not miss.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes plus two 10-minute intermissions
The Philadelphia Story plays through February 20, 2016.at 2nd Star Productions performing at the Bowie Playhouse – 16500 White Marsh Park Drive, in Bowie, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 757-5700, or (301) 832-4819, or purchase them online.