"The Philadelphia Story"

by Philip Barry

Directed by Jennifer Lavin Howard

Beatrice Herford's Vokes Theatre, Wayland, MA through July 31, 1999.

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The Vokes Players have revived Philip Barry's lovely "Philadelphia Story", in Old Line Arts Patron Beatrice Herford's lovely gilded miniature of a turn of the century private theatre.  I was delighted to discover that the thirty years that have passed since last I saw the play have no more diminished the charm of the script than the thirty years that passed between its premiere and that previous revival.  Of course, for the charm to work, the leading role of Golden Girl Tracy Lord must be played by an actress of undeniable beauty, grace, sensitivity, and intelligence-- one who possesses these qualities to such a degree that the dazzled men who compare her to a goddess don't seem utter fools.  Fortunately, the Vokes Players have engaged the services of just such an extraordinary being: one Karen Binder.  Miss Binder's aristocratic inflections occasionally echo those of Katherine Hepburn, who burst into Broadway stardom in the role in 1939, and whose readings are preserved in the subsequent motion picture.  The resemblance seems more an allusion than an imitation, however: Binder's Tracy is a genuine creation, a woman who grows and flowers before our very eyes.  What a pleasant experience it is, an evening of this sort of civilized romantic comedy!  Even the sternest critic may come away soothed and brightened, resolved anew to view the flaws and foibles of one's fellow creatures with magnanimity.

Tracy Lord's old money Philadelphia family is gathering to celebrate her marriage to an upright up and coming businessman, one George Kittredge (Michael Roberts).  This will be Tracy's second marriage.  Her first, to equally old rich childhood friend and yacht designer (in 1939! who was buying yachts in 1939?)  C. K. Dexter Haven ( Robert De Vivo) ended in divorce within a year.  Tracy seems to view Kittredge as her white knight mainly because he is such a contrast to Dexter Haven.  Surely a self made striver of rigid principle will rein her in and protect her from her worse impulses-- impulses that the idle dilettante Dexter only encouraged with his unflappable urbanity and situationally flexible morals.  Tracy has no intention of being bound to a bounder like her father Seth (Rich White), whose very public cavorting with a cutie made humiliating headlines.  So far, Tracy's tolerant mother  (JoAnne Powers) has successfully dealt with her humiliation by refusing to acknowledge it; but it looks as if even more humiliating headlines are in the offing.  Uncle Willy (Ray Johnson) is having far too much fun, Dexter and Dad have insisted on showing up for the wedding uninvited, and some popular scandalmongering  magazine that sounds rather like "Life" or "Time" has sent ace reporter Mike Connor (John Greiner Ferris) and his very good friend  award winning photographer Liz Embrie (Kimberly McClure) to get the scoop on this "Philadelphia Story".

Set designer Ronald L. Dion has expertly crammed an astonishing portion of the elegant Lord mansion and grounds onto the tiny Vokes stage.  Jennifer Lavin Howard saw to it that everyone on stage minded their etiquette when appropriate and tossed quips and aphorisms or wisecracks as if to the manor or manner born.  Elizabeth E. Tustian clothed most of the cast in comfortable country elegance, the servants in impeccable if uncomfortable formality, and the interlopers in dark New York sharp.

Ferris' sharp New York news biz wit of the left-leaning sort keeps the problems of the upper crust in perspective for a while, but only until his reporter falls under Tracy's spell, too.  How can poor Mike Connor help it?  Tracy has bought his books, and cuts through the surface cynicism to the sensitivity of a talented "literary" writer, his best work hopelessly  noncommercial.  Tracy, who has never had to worry about money herself, is perfectly equipped to admire what the crass masses fail to appreciate, and would happily serve as Mike's patron if only she could do so without patronizing him. What author could resist? But McClure's tough cookie of a working visual artist demonstrates that a hot-house flower like Tracy isn't the only admirable sort of womanly bloom. Young Shannon Connolly also shines, as Tracy's irrepressible little sister Dinah --- showing off shamelessly when encouraged by author Barry and director Howard, and retreating tactfully to the background when weightier matters take center stage.  Elegance, humor, tact, generosity, perspective, balance-- ah, the joys of civilization.