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Prying open prejudices
‘Philadelphia Story’ looks 
at class differences, relationships

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

November 13, 2008

 
Most people, if they remember "A Philadelphia Story" at all, it is as a 1941 film, starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. In fact Stewart got an Oscar for his role as Mike Connor. Thus, "Philadelphia Story," now playing at the Waukesha Civic Theatre, is an old story, but not without its merits for modern day audiences. Prejudices and biases will always exist between different groups whether based on age, gender, economics, ethnicity, political affiliation, levels of education, religion or sexual preference. We tend to relate best with people most like ourselves, and often form stereotypes about people who are "different."

This is a story about class differences. Two reporters, Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie, are sent to the Lord estate, to do a study of how the moneyed class lives. It just so happens that their arrival coincides with an upcoming second marriage that is about to take place between Tracy Lord and George Kittredge, someone who has made his way up from the working class. Tracy’s first husband Dexter is not at all at ease with this upcoming union and drops by to let his fears be known. Meanwhile, Connor, who goes into this assignment with all his prejudices hanging out concerning the non-working rich, finds himself reluctantly but strongly attracted to Tracy. But Imbrie is in love with Connor, so throw that fact into the romantic morass.

Tracy, well portrayed by the ever-reliable Ruth Arnell, a headstrong woman who is adored for her beauty, but would rather be seen as making some sort of contribution, is restless and unfulfilled. She thinks she will find happiness by marrying again and being the perfect wife and mother, but George is not her intellectual or cultural match, at least according to the two other competitors vying for her hand.

The other characters in the scenario seem less developed, but the three main characters - Tracy, Connor, and Dexter - are clearly delineated by the aforementioned Arnell, Mark Neufang and Will Elwood. Elwood was especially good at being suave in his manner and incisive in his comments. Among the minor characters who deserve mention for creating consistent and engaging roles are Jeff Davis as the impish Uncle Willie and Tracy’s younger, outspoken sister Dinah, well portrayed by the exuberant Haley Gray-Hoehn. Though Jenny Kosek did not have a large role, her face and voice executed some good one-liners as reporter Imbrie. She uses her large, expressive eyes well.

The pace is a bit slow at the beginning, but it definitely picks up in the second and third acts. There are times when the dialogue seems very stilted, but there are other times when it is quite natural and realistic. The scene when Tracy and her three suitors all collide is one of the best moments in the play because the background of the three wooers are sharply contrasted here, and suspense mounts as we try to guess whom she will end up marrying. Dinah provides some humor to the confusing proceedings when she starts drawing assumptions from her curious snoopings. In fact, there are many times when Dinah livens up a scene.

Though it is not an exceptionally thought-provoking play, it does bring up some interesting observations about prejudices, how they are formed and how difficult they are to break down, and also how relationships can only be lasting when both parties are tolerant of their own and their partner’s flaws and differences. Being put on a pedestal may be flattering, but it is both precarious and unrealistic as well, and Tracy finally realizes that.

The alternating set designs (Michael Halaska) reflect the posh classiness of the wealthy along with servants quietly bustling about making sure their masters and mistresses are being well taken of. Costumes are well chosen in keeping with the era (Aleta Bernard).

Directed by Reva Fox, the show runs through Nov. 23 at the Waukesha Civic Theatre on Main Street. Call (262) 547-0708 for times and tickets. It’s always a pleasure to resurrect an old story and prove its timelessness.