A spirited, liberated and self-assured young socialite suddenly finds herself pursued by three eligible suitors. This is the storyline that has women often worshipping at the altar of the 1940 romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story, which starred Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. The screwball film classic, an adaptation of Philip Barry’s 1939 play about divorce and remarriage, has a lot of male fans, too. So the retelling now at Circle Theatre, in an already attractive and vigorous show, comes with built-in popularity.
But director Jim Schneider never tries to ape the movie. His production is perfectly paced and well-executed. The lead performances are especially dynamic.
The playwright’s name has somewhat faded from public memory, but Philip Barry was once virtually the American Noël Coward. Barry wrote sophisticated drawing room comedies that dissected the upper classes. He built this play around Hepburn’s persona as a comeback vehicle to resuscitate her sinking career after she’d been labeled “box office poison.” After this show was a huge hit on Broadway, the actress played the same role in the much beloved MGM movie version and successfully reinvented herself in Hollywood.
Barry tailored his heroine, Tracy Lord, to fit Miss Hepburn: the upper-crust upbringing, the headstrong nature, the sharp wit and intelligence. In The Philadelphia Story, Katharine Hepburn essentially played herself. In Circle’s production, Laura McClain captures Tracy Lord without ever imitating the legendary actress’s distinctive accent and signature mannerisms.
The play revolves around the high society wedding of a Philly socialite (McClain). A tabloid magazine is given an exclusive to cover the nuptials of Tracy Lord in order to keep dirt on her father’s adulterous affair with a chorus girl out of the same publication. Tracy, a wealthy and beautiful free spirit accustomed to getting her own way, is heading to the altar for the second time.
But Tracy’s fiancé (Luke Renn), a solid, self-made millionaire, is a dull drip. And plans for the wedding are complicated by the simultaneous arrival of both Dexter, Tracy’s charming ex-husband (Kevin Anderson), and a cynical young tabloid reporter (Josh Hambrock). Posing as Tracy’s brother’s friend, he’s an aspiring novelist with a deep distrust of the wealthy.
It’s immediately apparent that there are still sparks between Tracy and Dex, the ex. In fact, they may even be more in love now than when they were married. His wedding present, a framed photo of their boat, The True Love, is too symbolic to miss. Dex still burns a torch for the strong-minded Miss Lord.
On the eve of her wedding to the stodgy, nouveau riche industrialist – after Tracy’s father scolds her for being “an ice princess” and an untouchable goddess – her ice melts in a champagne-fueled skinny-dip with the young reporter.
So Tracy must now choose from among her past love, her present love and her new love.
Today, young people refer to “starter marriages.” But in 1939, divorce was a very big deal. The plot represented the ultimate in sophistication for the time. And though this 71-year-old drama pokes fun at the rich, it also takes swipes at those who sneer at them.
Tracy’s sweet but essentially clueless society matron mother is Mary Pavia. Her philandering father, exiled in Manhattan for cheating on Tracy’s mother, is Tom Viskocil. Doug Pawlik plays Tracy’s happily married brother (a role written out of the film version). Katelyn Smith is Tracy’s kid sister, a lovable pest. At one point, the outspoken but insightful teenager sings “I Wanna Play Piano in a Whorehouse.”
Jhenai Mootz plays a Girl Friday gossip magazine photographer who shows up with the reporter. She’s cynical about the ways of love yet clearly has a crush on her sidekick.
Peter Esposito is funny as an incorrigibly dirty old uncle who pinches ladies’ bottoms.
Gregory Payne is a whistling night watchman and Thomas R. Schutt is the butler.
The Philadelphia Story, with its polished banter, still makes us laugh. It’s a delightful glimpse into the privileged lives of the rich on the eve of World War II.
The assistant director is Arlene Page. Rebecca Miles-Steiner is stage manager.
The elegant sitting room, designed by Bob Knuth, is quite handsome. Classical architectural details and a number of portraits enhance the set. The intimate performance space has never looked so expansive.
Peter J. Storms gets high marks for his sound design, which includes birds chirping and an unseen wedding orchestra tuning up, plus pre-show and intermission music that includes vintage hits by the Ink Spots, Kate Smith and Glenn Miller.
Doug Deuchler, a longtime educator, is an Oak Parker who, when not reviewing community theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, a local tour guide and docent, and author of several books about Oak Park and neighboring communities.