BWW Reviews: THE PHILADELPHIA STORY at the Shaw Festival
The Philadelphia Story, on stage at the Shaw Festival, takes the audience back to 1939, to the wealthy who have survived the Great Depression. Survived? It looks like they flourished!
The audience applauds the luxurious set as the curtain is raised. Everything is gold, silver and white - a lavish grand piano and gold satin cushions in a room piled high with elegantly wrapped wedding gifts.
Tracy Lord is a young socialite about to be married (for the second time) and she is haughtily looking over her wedding gifts with her mother and young sister Dinah. As the family gathers for the wedding, her ex-husband shows up, too. We learn she doesn't want her father to attend as he is having an affair with a young Broadway starlet. Tracy's brother Sandy comes up with a scheme to invite a pair of reporters to cover the wedding: their presence is granted in exchange for keeping their father's indiscretions out of the news.
As the pre-wedding day goes on, Tracy's fiancé, the stuffy Kittredge isn't so interesting. Soon she has two more suitors - her ex, Dexter, and the reporter Macaulay (Mike) Connor. Which does she marry? You'll have to see the show.
While all this sounds like a cute little plot, there are other messages: it's a glimpse into the snobby world of the rich one-percent and the class system they perpetuate. It's also a look into a high society family and their relationships.
Moya O'Connell is excellent as the snobby young woman. Her role is large and she carries it well. Her disdain for her ex soon slips away when he presents her with a model sailboat as a wedding gift. They relish memories of sailing together, and talk about their boat True Love, which was "yar" - meaning the boat was trim, responsive, and lively in handling - much like O'Connell herself as Tracy. O'Connell handles Tracy's transformation well, as she loosens her grip on the upper class, and takes a more realistic view of the world.
Tess Benger as the kid sister is suitably cheeky and mischievous. She handles the adolescent role well, providing a humorous look at the adult world through a young teenager's eyes.
The New England upper class accents are delightful - mostly British with a touch of Boston. O'Connell nails the accent and sounds a bit like Katherine Hepburn for whom the original play was written. Benger also has the accent, while keeping a child-like tone in her voice. At times, she sounded like Drew Barrymore in Grey Gardens, which is the best performance Ms. Barrymore has ever given.
The two suitors Gray Powell as the ex-husband Dexter and Patrick McManus as the reporter Mike are both very charming, and make themselves likeable, giving the plot its twist. The Lord family including Jeff Meadows as brother Sandy, Sharry Flett as the mother and Juan Chioran as the father are all excellent. Thom Marriott as the fiancé Kittredge and Fiona Byrne as the reporter Liz both have difficult roles as third wheels: they look awkward much of the time, but that's probably as intended.
There are a couple of holes in the plot: One minute, father is not welcome in the family, then he somehow blames his daughter for his need to have an affair with a younger woman, and next thing you know, she is welcoming him at the wedding and mother is at his side. This just doesn't ring true. Maybe in 1939, women were supposed to look the other way when husbands dallied in infidelity, but today it makes us uncomfortable.
And why were Tracy and Dexter only married for 10 months? Why get divorced? No clear explanation is offered.
Nonetheless, it is a very entertaining play, made so by the talents of Moya O'Connell. She is, indeed, yar.
The Philadelphia Story continues in repertoire at The Shaw Festival, Niagara on the Lake until October 12. For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com or call 1-800-511-7429.