NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. – It was another luxurious afternoon in the country, where members of a well-dressed society extolled the virtues of their estate, the flaws of their politics and the errors of their humanity. All with a polite chortle, a pronounced gasp and one subversive declaration of independence.
The Shaw Festival’s propensity for meta-commentary is in high gear with its new production of Philip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story,” his 1939 play that later became the hit film starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. It’s a charming production of a mild affair that hits sharp points with oodles of delight.
Barry’s story is by no means earth-moving in this day and age. Tracy Lord, the recently divorced daughter of a wealthy family, faces three vastly different suitors: C.K. Dexter Haven, her class-on-par ex-husband; George Kittredge, her nouveau riche and childish fiancée; and Macaulay Connor, a button-pushing journalist sent to cover her family’s sordid affairs. Does she choose the path of least societal resistance, of true but misaligned love, or something altogether subversive?
It’s wonderful to have choices, seems to be the main line here – great if you don’t know yourself, or care to. Tracy insists that no one lives up to her standards, and yet everyone else insists that she doesn’t have the maturity of character to have any.
An aggressive (for her day) woman, who holds her own in intellectual debate as well as in a dress, Tracy is tired of the adoration and tells every man in so many whole words. She wants a romance, not a parade, though. Tracy is the quickest to point out the disgraces of her misfortunes, ever aware as she is of her family’s status, yet can’t see her choices for what they are: privilege of the richest currency.
Moya O’Connell is well suited for Tracy’s form-pushing role. Considering the particularity of the mold (Hepburn originated the role on stage and screen), these aren’t delicate shoes to wear. Hepburn’s influence is certainly in play here, though O’Connell smartly avoids impersonation in lieu of an echo; it may be impossible or unfair to approach Tracy with any other template. She is brash, stubborn, aggressive and industrious, but she is poised, delicate, feminine and easily romanced. O’Connell weaves these and other contrarian traits together holistically, giving us a more complete characterization than even Hepburn’s archetype might have been able to.
As her most trusted, though previously unsuitable suitor, Gray Powell is a calm, confident Haven. Powell brings much the same easiness to this role as he does in his other mainstage appearance this season, as Cliff Bradshaw in “Cabaret.” He is a consistent, quiet, intellectually comforting leading man type, an approachable Robert Redford.
The surprise in Haven’s arrival, an uninvited thorn in the family’s plans for their daughter’s picture-perfect, though media-covered, wedding, subsides as soon as Haven’s tactics are understood. He knows Tracy better than anyone. Powell is a fine match for O’Connell’s irreverence, one you could see in other co-starring iterations, much like that between Hepburn and her many screen partners.
Thom Marriott is a daft George, the goofy, tactless man-boy that he and his new money implies. But it seems Marriott plays George too grown-up, even too wise, at times. Here is a wasted chance for elevated humor, an element of this dated, though salient commentary that director Dennis Garnhum appears to have suppressed at times.
Granted, there are more salient arguments to be made about marriage these days than this play allows Garnhum to make, though the most important one – the fading relevancy of patriarchal ownership in today’s polarizing class structure, and the importance of independent, co-partnered domesticity – barely hits home. It feels dated, and that’s Barry’s doing for sure, though there’s nary a wink or nod the way that many of Shaw and the Shaw’s readings so deftly offer. I yearned for a Shaw-penned version of this exact story in watching Garnhum’s treatment of it.
It might be the festival’s exceedingly high standards that accentuate the missed opportunities for something sharper, more provocative, less frivolous. Garnhum is artistic director of Theatre Calgary, where the production will move this winter, and the collaboration here is laudatory. Though aside from the high-caliber of this Festival Theatre staging, with serviceable, dependable design from William Schmuck and Kevin Lamotte, to say nothing of a terrific, swift ensemble, it feels like a departure from the literary expectations that we trust from this company.
Much like the Lord estate, on this idyllic summer day, it’s too simply a stroll in the park.