High-Toned Streets of Philadelphia
The Philadelphia Story
by Phillip Barry
directed by Katya Nelhams-Wright
at the Loeb Mainstage
May 5,6, and 7
This just in--love isn't so brotherly in Philadelphia. Set in a time period when the streets of Philadelphia were better known for socialites than for Springsteen songs, The Philadelphia Story centres on the past, present, and possible future loves of spoiled ice princess Tracy Lord. With some strong performances from its cast, director Katya Nelhams-Wright's production is an interesting look at a troubled upper-echelon family. Evoking the feel and problems of this uppercrust, The Philadelphia Story suffers from some awkwardness and unbelievability, but ultimately conveys a poignant tale of love and loss.
Remembered by most for the 1940 Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant/Jimmy Stew-art film adaptation, The Philadelphia Story ambitiously tackles a number of themes, from class tension to divorce to parent-child relations. The play revolves around Lord (Janine Poreba), a wealthy socialite who is tired of men, from her father to her ex-husband, telling her how untouchably wonderful she is. With Tracy set to marry newly-rich social climber George Kittredge (J.C. Wolfgang Murad), her wedding promises to be a gala affair, drawing reluctant reporters Elizabeth Imbrie (Emily Gardiner) and Mike Connor (Jason Watkins).
As Tracy, Poreba's success in playing a woman who longs to be knocked from her pedestal is the play's driving factor, and her portrayal conveys Tracy's strength convincingly. Combined with some admirable under-playing from Watkins, Poreba absolutely stumps the reporter at their first meeting; her reply to his amiable "but I'm Mike to my friends" is "Of whom you have many, I'm sure." Poreba delivers such loaded lines with the perfect mix of sweetness and slyness, and men, including Connor, cannot help but fall helpless before her. While Tracy's relationship with her exhusband C.K. Dexter haven (Aaron Zelman) seems a bit too acidic at times, Tracy eventually proves to be nowhere near unbreakable, and Poreba vacillates admirably between the woman who tells her ex-husband to his face that she never loved him and who also melts at the thought of selling their mutual prize boat, the True Love. Zelman's Haven is hard to see as a recovering alcoholic, but he becomes more believable as the play progresses, and consequently more likable as well.
With Tracy's younger sister Dinah (Jessica Yager) providing amusing, if at times annoying, comic relief, the play also sports a sense of humor to accompany its romantic and social entanglements. Yager seems a bit too comic at times, with her pig-tails and "rooty-tooty" lingo, but the scene in which she entertains the two reporters is one of the funniest of the play. As the lecherous old Uncle William, Greg Clayman is also quite amusing, and the skillful makeup job of Rosetta Lee makes his protrayal even more convincing. His handling of the standard mistaken-identity plot is cute if short-lived, and quickens the otherwise leisurely pace a bit; the play, especially in the first couple of scenes, does tend to lag due to some awkward staging.
The play's triumph, however, is in creating an atmosphere that makes Nelham-Wright's somewhat solemn rendition a touching comment on the difficulties of love. With a beautiful set, designed by Hilary Hanson, the production has a look and feel that is the perfect backdrop for its high-society hijinks. The split indoor/outdoor stage brings the Lord's posh country mansion to life, though lighting difficulties detract from the reality of some outdoor scenes. The wide-open stage, while a visual delight, makes partial fades inadequate in concealing actors' exists and entrances. Despite these technical difficulties, however, The Philadelphia Story remains an enjoyable one, with a wistful feel created by both actors and stage. Its slightly contrived, perfect-for-Hollywood ending may stretch believability a bit, but in the end we're glad for a bit of unbrotherly love.