A beautiful, rich heiress leaves her husband because of his ostensible drinking problem. She becomes engaged to a newly rich, but awkward, social climber. Slowly growing bored with her betrothed, she then entertains her ex-husband’s atoning appeals for forgiveness. As both compete for her affections, she falls for the charming wiles of a newspaper reporter hungry for scandal.
What’s a girl to do?
Philip Barry quarried a mountain of dramatic gold from that molehill of a question when he sat down to write “The Philadelphia Story,” his 1939 play of marriage, divorce and commitment. Like Jane Austen, Barry explores the marriage plot and how character is revealed through that choice. Also like Austen, Barry knew this special trick could be pulled off only with dialogue and language that were as witty as they were full of suspense.
From stage, to film, and back again • Movie buffs know “The Philadelphia Story” as the 1940 release that sealed Katharine Hepburn’s fate as film star after a string of bitter box-office disappointments. Theater fans, and even rabid devotees of the film version, will get the rare chance to see the story in its original form during Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of Barry’s stage classic, which runs Jan. 11-26.
With its cast of Hepburn as heiress Tracy Lord, Cary Grant as ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven and James Stewart as reporter Macaulay Connor, the film version directed by George Cukor deserves pride of place in the stage genre of romantic comedy. But just as art lovers rarely admire a painting from just one angle, limiting yourself to just one version of a masterpiece is a strange kind of love.
Barry’s script is interesting enough to warrant multiple takes beyond the iconic film version, said Jenn Thompson, co-artistic director of New York City’s Actors Company Theatre, who is directing the PTC production. (To avoid a plot spoiler, don’t ask whom Lord winds up with.) The story is strong enough to satisfy those who enjoy watching every line of dialogue click effortlessly into a dramatic whole all over again.
“You have to fulfill the audience expectation that this is a gorgeous play of almost endless Champagne bubbles, because that’s exactly what it is,” Thompson said. “At the same time, the hardest part is making these people not feel like simple caricatures of rich people. It’s so much more than the iconic figures of the movie.”
Marriage material • The drama’s surface is suffused with glamour, beauty and riches. But underneath that there rests a sense of no-nonsense pragmatism when it comes to relationships and commitment, Thompson said.
“I don’t know that I recognized it until we started rehearsals weeks ago, but at the end of the day it isn’t romantic love that proves the most passionate connection in Tracy’s decision,” Thompson said. “It’s about the power of friendship. It’s a very sophisticated drama in that way.”
Allison McLemore, the Arkansas native who plays Lord, said she considered it a strength that she was only vaguely familiar with the film version before she secured the role. The other way around “can do strange things to an actor’s mind,” she said.
What attracts her to the role, McLemore said, is that Lord’s personal journey runs on two tracks that, by play’s end, converge: She learns who’s best for her as a marriage partner only by learning who she really is.
What gives the drama its special, tart bite, Thompson said, is the fact that Barry wrote his script based on composites of real-life friends, and a particular Philadelphia socialite of exacting standards in particular. During 1930s Depression-era America, the rich didn’t always cut sympathetic figures, just as they don’t today. But Thompson said Barry’s script strives to show them as people all the same.
“A lot of Lord’s story is about learning to accept your own faults as well as the faults of others,” Thompson said. “She’s humbled, and that’s not a quaint feeling.”
Back when words meant something • “The Philadelphia Story” harkens to a time when conversation was both art and sport, notes actor Todd Gearhart, who plays C.K. Dexter Haven.
Many plays register impact by how often fans pick up and quote lines of dialogue. Even among that select company, “The Philadelphia Story” is unique in that the contours of its story turn corners on the emphasis, color and delivery of single sentences and — sometimes — even single words.
Every fan has a favorite, from Lord’s famous pronouncement that “The time to make up your mind about people is never” to her father Seth’s iron-clad advice: “You have everything it takes to make a lovely woman except for one essential. An understanding heart. And without that you might just as well be made of bronze.”
Gearhart likens rehearsals of the play to a kind of stage marathon that tests actors’ skills of endurance. “[C.K. Dexter] speaks almost in full paragraphs,” he said. “I compare a lot of the lines to Fred Astaire dancing.”
For McLemore, who recently played the role of governess in a stage adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, the change from dramatic suspense and horror to comedy has been an abrupt about face, but a refreshing one. In preparation for her role as the fussy young woman who must have everything to her specification, McLemore has taken to listening to the Andrews Sisters and Glenn Miller. It’s classy music for a classy time when words meant perhaps more than they do today.
If “The Philadelphia Story” is about the power of anything in particular, it’s about the power of forgiveness, risk and commitment. All three may be abstract concepts, but take on fresh meaning when expressed in Barry’s luminous words of dialogue.
“You have to take huge ownership of your lines,” McLemore said. “If you let language like that get ahead of you, it will take over and just turn into a kind of mush. I think I’ll be working on that skill, with this play, ’til the day we close.”
‘The Philadelphia Story’
When • Jan. 11-26. Mondays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $25-$44; at 801-581-6961 or www.pioneertheatre.org.