THE PHILADELPHIA STORYBy Philip Barry
Originally Produced by The Theatre Guild (Theresa Helburn, Lawrence Langner: Administrative Directors)
Allen Community Theatre
Director – Bill Olds
Producer – Robyn Mead
Stage Manager – Kristina Rosette
Assistant Director – Robyn Mead
Fight Choreographer – Jeremy Stein
Sound Design – Richard Stephens, Sr. and Richard Stephens, Jr.
Set Design – Lamar Graham
Lighting Design – Richard Stephens, Jr. and Richard Stephens, Sr.
Costume Design – Jeanelle Coral
Dinah Lord – Cate Stuart
Tracy Lord – Laura Merchant
Margaret Lord – Karen Jordan
Alexander (Sandy) Lord – Joe Barr
William (Uncle Willie) Tracy – Frank Wyatt
Macauley (Mike) Connor – Eddy Herring
Elizabeth (Liz) Imbrie – Penny Chinn
C. K. Dexter Haven – Nick Tischer
George Kittredge – Jonathan Dixon
Seth Lord – Stan Kelly
Mac – Lamar Graham
Thomas – Pete Mason
Reviewed Performance: 3/13/2016
Reviewed by Nicole Mulupi, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Though the story and script are quite dated, the lessons it teaches are still relevant today. As a lover of the classic cinema film, I was excited to have the opportunity to see this wonderful play at Allen’s Community Theatre. Director Bill Olds and Producer/Assistant Director Robyn Mead did a fine job bringing Barry’s script to life, and Kristina Rosette’s stage management kept everything flowing smoothly throughout. Their production takes you back to 1930s suburban Philadelphia, where a wealthy young socialite is on the eve of her marriage to self-made businessman George Kittredge.
When you first walk into the theatre, you can hear big band jazz, the likes of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. The stage is set with a baby grand piano, a chaise longue, antique sofa, a writing desk, a phone stand and a lovely painted split-staircase backdrop. Above the audience hangs a small copper candelabra-style chandelier that lends warm lighting to the pre-show ambiance. Lamar Graham’s set design is beautiful and thorough. It wasn’t hard to imagine I was back in the 1930s. Later, in Act II, as the scene changed from drawing room to the back porch and gardens, the stage and backdrop were reset with equal care. The props and antique pieces selected by Kristina Rosette and Bill Olds were well-chosen and helped reinforce the impression of being in 1930s upper-class Philadelphia.
Because it is a small theatre, there was not a need for much in the way of sound design. The stage had overhead mics, and the actors had to project their voices enough to be heard. This did not seem to be a problem. I could easily hear and keep up with all the action. The pre-show and intermission music was at a perfect level and so were the stage mics. The only thing I noticed out-of-place was the piano music when Dinah Lord went to the baby grand to play. They could have found a better recording. The sound was that of a cheap upright piano, and the volume was set too low. This lowered the sense of realism that had been built up to that point, but only for a minute.
Richard Stephens, Sr. and Richard Stephens, Jr. more than made up in light design the little that was lacking in sound. As the scenes changed from indoor to outdoor and from day to night, the lights were essential to creating the right mood and effect, which they consistently did. The Stephens’ use of color and the timing of their cues was flawless, even with the two or three cue changes timed with kisses. The rosy flash of lights helped to create a visual display of the “fireworks” the characters were feeling in their drunken euphoria.
The costume designs by Jeanelle Coral were mostly on point, except for the button-down shirt and jean shorts worn by the young Dinah Lord. They were a bit too modern, too long, too loose and not tailored enough to fit the time period. Everything else worked, though. I thought Mrs. Lord and all of the gentlemen were particularly well put-together.
Fight Choreography by Jeremy Stein was minimal, but excellent. It consisted, as far as I can remember, of one punch and a fall. The placement was well-chosen, the lack of fist-to-face contact was barely noticeable, and the fall looked quite real.
At first, I must admit, I was not overly impressed with the acting or the script. It took me a few minutes to get into the story. Scene One opens with Tracy (played by Laura Merchant) working on her thank-you notes as she chats in the sitting room with her mother Margaret and younger sister Dinah (played by Karen Jordan and Cate Stuart, respectively). The lines felt unnatural, and the sharp contrast between the accents and personalities of the Lord ladies was off-putting. This was not a family. It was three very different actresses on stage delivering lines that were not particularly engaging. Only Laura Merchant seemed completely at ease with her lines and her lead role. She seemed unaffected by the awkwardness in the room.
And awkward it was. I was especially distracted by Cate Stuart as Dinah Lord. She was too loud for the small space, her enunciation was too pronounced to feel natural, and her blush was overdone to the point that my eyes kept going directly to her cheeks every time I looked at her. She is young, so I normally wouldn’t criticize her so sharply. But, in this case, I am happily able to withdraw my criticisms, as they ended up being a first impression only. As it turns out, the uncomfortable beginning set the stage perfectly for the comedy to come. Dinah was lovably obnoxious and over-the-top in every way throughout the play. She kept the audience laughing with her crazy antics, including dancing around and posing in her ballet dress and pointe shoes, laying her head on the lap of a new house guest, and inviting the bride’s ex-husband to come over for lunch.
Karen Jordan was graceful and well-spoken as Margaret Lord, the mother of the Lord girls and loyal wife to their father, her philandering husband Seth Lord (played by Stan Kelly). Her refined manner in the midst of chaos set her apart from her more modern-thinking daughters and helped to anchor this high society family to decency and propriety, though her quiet acceptance of her husband’s affair was clearly a source of humiliation for her. Jordan represented women of Lord’s time period beautifully, showing the strength of character it took to be gracious and forgiving, even though betrayal.
Laura Merchant owned the role of Tracy Lord. Her stage presence commanded the audience’s attention (except when little sister Dinah was being hilarious). Her accent and inflection were reminiscent of Hepburn, but she was more casual and more dominant a figure than the Hollywood version. Whether her character’s mood was introspective, facetious, drunk, giddy, ashamed, angry, doubtful, or apologetic, I was completely transfixed and able to enjoy her in every scene. I followed her journey through self-discovery and acceptance as she learned to embrace humanity—even her own—as it is, and not as she willed it to be.
Joe Barr played the older brother, Alexander (Sandy) Lord. From the moment he walked on stage, the Lords began to seem more like a family. It’s kind of like in real life—when one of the family is missing, things just don’t seem complete. Barr’s casual posture, easy manner, and affectionate tone of voice brought a sense of completeness to the Lord home. It also highlighted the fact that something had been missing without a man-of-the-house present.
The unwilling reporter, Macauley (Mike) Connor and his partner, photographer Elizabeth (Liz) Imbrie, were played by Eddy Herring and Penny Chinn. Their unwanted presence in the house, and the residents’ attempts to give them a good show, makes for some fun comedy. Herring did an outstanding job of gradually transforming from cold reporter to smitten suitor. His drunk act was a bit uneven, perhaps, but he made up for it in the romantic scenes.
Chinn’s Liz Imbrie was a bit more provocative than her film counterpart, with her face more made-up and her cleavage more pronounced, but that only added to the working-class distinction that set her apart from the Lord family. Her dry wit and facial expressions added yet another level of irony to each scene she was in.
Nick Tischer played the abandoned-but-still-hopeful ex-husband, C. K. Dexter Haven. Although Tischer is a skilled actor and delivered his lines with feeling, his romantic lead did not work for me. His Dexter did not behave with the degree of familiarity or exude the physical confidence that he would have done as a man who had shared a life and a bed with this woman; there was no level of possessiveness and no chemistry between them, and he did not seem nearly the threat he should have been to husband-to-be, George Kittredge. To be fair, Barry’s script left much open to interpretation, and the movie script gives the character a lot more to work with than the play. Still, while Cary Grant chose to deliver his accusatory lines with a smirk, a shrug and affectionate banter, Tischer chose to play the role straight. In a romantic comedy, he needs to lighten up on the lines and lean in a bit so that the audience can see some kind of physical tension between the romantic leads.
Most impressive to me was Jonathan Dixon as George Kittredge. He stepped into the role the night before opening night and learned all his lines and blocking in a day, due to an unfortunate accident that left Doug Smetzer, who was originally cast, unable to perform. If I would not have been told, I would have never known. Dixon was wonderful as the doting fiancé and ambitious businessman; it is hard to imagine that anyone else could have done better in the role, with any amount of practice.
Frank Wyatt played William (Uncle Willie) Tracy. Uncle Willie’s inappropriate habit of pinching women and girls on the backside—even his underage niece (creepy)—made him an absurd choice to save the dignity of the family, yet he got mixed up in Tracy’s scheme to hide the fact that her father was away in New York having an extramarital affair, by being recruited to play the role of father. Frank Wyatt was possibly too good at playing the unseemly uncle.
When Stan Kelly came on stage as the prodigal father, Seth Lord, the audience and the cast froze for a second. Upon returning home, the patriarch of the family found a reporter, a photographer, and a family calling him “Uncle Willie.” Immediately as he entered, you could tell he owned the place. His commanding countenance and stately posture made it clear that the deception his daughter had managed could not last long. His unapologetic manner toward Tracy, and the partial blame he placed upon her for his own behavior would not be tolerated today (and it hardly was by Tracy), but his manner was indicative of the time period and it added to the authenticity of the story. While he was not completely excused for his unfaithfulness, he was sincere in his remorse toward his wife. Karen Jordan’s scenes with her stage husband were warm and natural. The audience was easily convinced that these two had shared many happy years together and that neither was ready to give all of that up.
Pete Mason was the good-natured butler, Thomas, who always knew more than he let on. Mason played his role brilliantly, maintaining the appearance of respect and propriety while making it clear—to those who were paying attention—that he took a good deal of pleasure in the embarrassment of the Lord family. You could tell that his tongue and cheek had spent many years in good company while serving the Lords.
Mac, the night watchman, was played by LaMar Graham. He came onstage with a flashlight once, and here-and-there throughout Act II. I don’t even remember what he was doing. He was almost like a set piece—and somewhat of an oddity. His mute appearances were quite funny, actually. If he had lines, I don’t remember them. He was referred to by Tracy as “a prince upon men” at one point in the play, though. He was very common and looked rather dirty, so it says a lot that she, a spoiled socialite, would have known about him or noticed him at all.
Though she does appear at first to be rather self-righteous and condescending, there is more to Tracy Lord than what you get from a first impression. It doesn’t take long to warm up to her and to become vested in the character’s future. The same is true of this production as a whole. Allen Community Theatre’s production of The Philadelphia Story is a show I recommend for individuals, couples and families with older children who can handle mature subjects presented tastefully. The level of professionalism and artistry offered by this director, cast and crew will make it a thoroughly enjoyable experience for anyone who values quality theatre; and, the superbly written dialogue and 1930s setting will appeal to those with an appreciation of language and culture.
Allen’s Community Theatre, 160 W Main Street, Lewisville, Texas 75057
Performances: ACT, 1210 E. Main Street #300, Allen, Texas 75002 (SW corner of Allen Heights and Main Street) Shows are March 18, 19, 25, 26 @ 8pm, March 17, 24 @ 7:30pm and March 3, 20, 27 @ 3pm.