Playwrights, as a rule, tend to stick up for the little guy and root for the underdog. But Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story may be the exception that proves it – a plea for the 1 per cent, dating from the end of the Depression.
“With the rich and mighty, always a little patience” is the key line of this 1939 comedy that was turned into a memorable film starring Katharine Hepburn, and it’s an adage still worth keeping in mind in an age defined by TMZ, when we devour celebrities and their scandals like fast food and forget that they are human, too.
Tracy Lord is the 1 per center in need of patience in The Philadelphia Story, played with fizz by Moya O’Connell in the Shaw Festival’s new production. A young socialite about to be married for the second time, we first encounter her decidedly not checking her privilege – dressed in jodhpurs and making wry, ungrateful remarks about the piles of wedding gifts surrounding her.
For her latest nuptials, Tracy’s intended is a self-made and somewhat self-regarding man named George Kittredge, who is obviously not well-suited for such a vivacious and whip-smart but ultimately frivolous woman (perhaps a little too obviously so in Thom Marriott’s puffed-up performance as Kittredge).
Wedding plans begin to unravel when younger sister Dinah (a charming Tess Benger) asks Tracy’s debonair ex-husband Dexter (Gray Powell) to stop by the afternoon before the ceremony, and older brother Sandy (Jeff Meadows) invites a New York reporter named Mike (Patrick McManus) and photographer named Liz (Fiona Byrne) to write about the big day with full access – as part of an agreement whereby the rag they work for won’t publish an embarrassing story about the family’s philandering father.
The Shaw Festival, with its mandate to explore the works of Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, puts on plenty of plays that examine class from a British perspective. The Philadelphia Story, however, takes a decidedly American approach to the same subject, separating wealth from class – seeing the former as measurable, the latter as simply an attitude or air or a kind of performance.
Barry’s play neatly illustrates this. When the tabloid hacks first arrive to get their “Philadelphia story,” Tracy and her family try to trick them and regain a certain amount of privacy by putting on an over-the-top burlesque of their class, pretending they are snooty and out-of-touch.
But, as often happens when you start to pretend you’re someone you’re not, your normal self becomes difficult to slip back into – and Tracy, after reconnecting with Dexter and being challenged politically and romantically by Mike, finally comes face to face with the question she’s long been avoiding: What is her worth, as a wife and as a person, beyond her inherited millions?
In one way, Barry’s script is set up as a classical comedy ending in a marriage, with the question of which of the three leading men will end up the groom providing suspense until the very last moment. The heroine’s real journey in the play isn’t to the altar, however, but, like the heroine of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (which played on the same Shaw stage last season), from seeing the world in black and white to embracing human frailty and ambiguity. As Tracy eventually learns: “The time to make up your mind about people is never.”
The Philadelphia Story is an unusual American comedy insofar as it is witty rather than funny, sophisticated without being cynical and open-hearted without being sentimental. Its fast-paced dialogue sounds like something out of a screwball comedy, but it’s more theatrical and textured – and the Shaw Festival company handles it with style, top to bottom. O’Connell is allowed to burn brightly at the centre, dressed in a number of eye-candy outfits designed by William Schmuck; Powell makes the most of his understated charisma; and McManus makes the journalist character attractively arrogant.
Director Dennis Garnhum, who is being touted as a possible successor to Shaw Festival artistic director Jackie Maxwell, may not take many risks with his production, but neither does he put a foot wrong. (The only thing that really jars is the tinny, synthetic music by Jeremy Spencer.) After the Shaw season ends, the show will be remounted at Garnhum’s current home base at Theatre Calgary from Jan. 27 to Feb. 22, 2015.
In other news, once again here is a Shaw Festival production where all the leads are played by white actors and only servants (and a night watchman) are played by actors of colour. Does no one realize or care how racist this place looks?
Here is a list of all the parts played by actors of colour now that half the 2014 season has opened (the musical excluded): a maid, a butler and a footman (The Philadelphia Story); a second footman (The Charity That Began at Home); “Russian officer 2” (Arms and the Man); and nobody (When We Are Married).