Theatre Southwest sets you up right at the start with a most beguiling preview, laying the tone for all that follows. The entrance foyer into its intimate theater is bedecked in flowers like an outdoor gazebo, a brick walkway leads us in through French doors (a perfect touch) and into the posh living room of the Lords, a socially prominent Philadelphia family. Two Art Deco-like staircases sweep musically offstage, a fireplace holds centerstage with an imposing portrait, and there are enough crystal and silver tchotchkes, bar ware, sconces and framed engravings to grace any River Oaks manse. The molding is classic dentil, white and glossy; the furniture plump, with good lines. The place reeks of class and fine living. What a star turn for this most sophisticated comedy. Absolutely perfect. Director Melinda Beckham and John Stevens designed this cushy world.
One could say that American playwright Philip Barry (1896-1949) was our own Noel Coward. Although he wrote in many genres: psychological, religion-tinged dramas edged with symbolism (John, Hotel Universe, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, The Joyous Season, Here Come the Clowns – none are seldom revived anymore); he is forever praised as the chronicler of the Main Line and the Sophisticate of Park Avenue in his trilogy of comedy classics, Holiday (1928), The Animal Kingdom (1932), and foremost, The Philadelphia Story (1939). Barry admired the unconventional, no matter what social station his characters hail from. Damn it, sometimes the rich can be downright different and worthy of respect. It's not the money or prestige that makes them strangely likable in Barry's world, it's their flaunting of the rules. The working class can be filled with prigs, you know.
The Lords live a rarefied world, they have everything except influence over the expose Destiny Magazine is about to spring on their daughter Tracy's second marriage. Tracy Lord (a radiant Autumn Woods) is a goddess, or that's how she's perceived, judgmental, beautiful and arrogant, above it all. It's going to take four men to knock her off that pedestal – ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (a loose and louche Allen Dorris), her stuffy finance George (an exasperated Trevor B. Cone, replacing Brian Heaton), her philandering father (a wisely sympathetic David Hymel), and working class reporter Mike (Aaron Echegaray as a real guy's guy). Others in the family who make indelible contributions and impressions: befuddled mom (Bailey Hampton), wise-ass younger sister Dinah (a delightful Annabelle Dragas Xanthos), dirty old man Uncle Willie (John Stevens, having a ball), brother Sandy who wants to take down Destiny (a crusading Scott McWhirter), and wisecracker Destiny photographer Liz, in love with Mike (Leslie Lenert, admirably channeling all those wise broads from '30s Hollywood).
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There's no way you can watch Story without remembering iconic Katherine Hepburn from the sparkling MGM film adaptation by Donald Ogden Steward, directed by George Cukor. Barry wrote the play for her, using her inimitable style and personality as basis for Tracy's character, good and bad. She needed a hit, and Barry delivered a masterpiece. She had secured the movie rights before the play opened, and therefore assured herself of perhaps her greatest screen role.
Woods uses a different tack. She looks great – glowing alabaster skin, flaming red hair (C.K. adoringly calls her “Red” throughout), curvaceously appealing – and wears clothes like a Vogue model (the costumes go uncredited in the Playbill). She's a bit more brittle than Hepburn, perhaps not as soft when delivering those delicious Barry putdowns, but in a distinct way all her own that makes her fall from grace that much more of a tumble. But never for a moment do we doubt her irresistible allure and power over her men. Her match, of course, is C.K. She wants love, but only on her terms. Once she finds forgiveness in others, she transforms into a complete woman. Woods accomplishes this feat with breathless joy and great elan. This being a comedy of ultra-grand manners, all ends happily, if a smidgen too rushed. [The film solved this problem succinctly by eliminating the brother, allowing C.K. and Mike to do the blackmailing.]
Director Malinda Beckham overlays the play with a wonderful flow, using all stage space allowed, letting Barry's round-robin romp bound and skip. Thanks to her, there's not a dull moment. The play already delights as you walk in. It keeps delighting throughout. One of Theatre Southwest's most proficient and pleasant productions, The Philadelphia Story is a mighty intriguing tale, richly told anew by master storytellers. Who says the rich don't have fun?
The Philadelphia Story continues through June 20 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. Purchase tickets online at.theatresouthwest.org or call 713-661-9505. $15-$17.