The Philadelphia Story: A pretty, pretty sight

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“The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” So says Macaulay Connor, an author slumming it as a tabloid writer in Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story, and while Connor has firmly established himself as an opponent of America’s de facto aristocracy, he seems sincere in that champagne-tinted moment.

It could well be true. Theatre Calgary’s production (in concert with The Shaw Festival) of The Philadelphia Story is nothing if not pretty, with William Schmuck’s lavish sets and dazzling costumes instantly creating an atmosphere of opulence befitting its setting on the estate of the Lords, one of the oldest of Philadelphia’s old-money families. If revelling in such resplendence in this era of one-percenters and income inequality seems a little gauche, don’t think that’s not the point — Barry’s play was first mounted in 1938, at the tail end of the depression, and class and wealth are on its mind as much as wit and charm.

As we open, the Lords’ oldest daughter, Tracy (Moya O’Connell), is sorting through wedding gifts on the eve of her second marriage, to up-and-coming coal magnate George Kittredge (Thom Marriott). Kittredge is on his way up from the working classes, respectable, politically minded and more than a little stuffy — essentially the opposite of Tracy’s first husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Gray Powell), a wealthy gadabout whose chief accomplishments were the yachts he designed and the whiskey he consumed.

A wrench is thrown in the works when Tracy’s brother, Sandy (Jeff Meadows), invites a pair of reporters to cover the wedding for Destiny magazine. It turns out that the Lord patriarch, Seth (Ric Reid), has been off philandering in New York, and Sandy has bartered the inside scoop on Tracy’s wedding in exchange for Destiny’s silence on their father’s infidelities. Thus enter writer Connor (Patrick McManus) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Fiona Byrne), who, to their credit, are not at all pleased about the gossipy assignment, either.

Certainly, there are a whole host of names and motivations to keep track of (the 1940 film adaptation wisely combines Dexter and Sandy’s roles), and unfortunately, the first act suffers a little for it. Barry’s script is a wonder, but there’s something off in the rhythm here, a distancing theatricality that keeps the audience at arm’s length. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable — Guy Bannerman’s irascible Uncle Willie is particularly fun, and Byrne brings exactly the right notes to Liz — just that between a stuffy Kittredge, stuck-up Connor and a Dexter who’s more bitter than charming, it isn’t immediately obvious who we should be rooting for, or why.

Things do come together wonderfully after the intermission. McManus deserves credit for making the headstrong, soft-hearted Connor his own, but it’s O’Connell who especially shines, both in Tracy’s champagne-fuelled giddiness and the sober morning reflections that follow. There’s more than a little of Katherine Hepburn’s original performance in her take, but there’s an emotional truth that goes well beyond imitation.

Director Dennis Garnhum mentioned there were last-minute changes made before opening night, so with any luck, the irregularities in the first act will be ironed out in no time. Even if they aren’t, The Philadelphia Story is easy to recommend. While it goes without saying that some of its attitudes are very much of its time, it is nonetheless bright, funny, touching and, yes, pretty. And if it falls a bit short of the 1940 film, well, it’s hard to touch perfection.

The Philadelphia Story runs until February 22 at Max Bell Theatre.

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