Monday, March 18, 2013

The Philadelphia Story at Harlequin

From left: Jason Haws, Helen Harvester, Elix Hill and Russ Holm. Photo by Scot Whitney
Harlequin’s “The Philadelphia Story” is big in many ways — big cast, big set, ambitious production. It’s a timeless tale performed by a large and excellent cast in wonderful period costumes on a revolving stage that alternates between the parlor and the patio of the elegant home of an aristocratic Philadelphia family in the 1930s. The finely detailed set, which rivals those at larger theaters such at the 5th Ave and Seattle Rep, was designed by Linda Whitney, who is also directing this play.

In addition to designing and directing — and I know I’ve said this before — Whitney also writes the best directors notes to be found in theatrical programs in the South Sound, as with the set, equaling or bettering those from much larger theaters. Her notes, usually called “Annotation,” paint nicely worded and thoroughly researched history and background notes. In the case of “The Philadelphia Story” the Lord family is based on an actual high-society Philadelphia family and the main character, Tracy Lord, is based on the well-known society belle Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, a colorful character indeed. 

I’m not so sure it was a good thing, however, that in writing about the film version starring Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn, Whitney gave away what would have otherwise been a delightful surprise ending.

I suggest not reading her annotation until after seeing the play.

Aaron Lamb, Helen Harvester and Jason Haws. Photo by Scot Whitney
I am not generally a fan of period pieces nor plays or movies about the upper crust, but some, such as “The Importance of Being Ernest” are good enough to overcome my aversion to snobbery. This play is another prime example. In fact, it intelligently and humorously pokes fun at the aristocrats, their celebrity and their morality. It is an intelligently written play. 

Tracy (played with great style by Helen Harvester) is going to marry fellow snob George Kittredge (Jaryl Draper) the next day. During the day and night prior to the wedding family and friends, including Tracy’s ex-husband, along with a previously unknown reporter and photographer, descend on the Lord’s estate, and the wild happenings of the evening before the wedding turn Tracy into a much more human and down-to-earth woman. 

The reporter is played by Aaron Lamb and the photographer by Maggie Lofquist. The ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, is played by veteran Harlequin actor Jason Haws. Haws, as always, is a joy to watch in action, and Harvester is amazing as Tracy. Thin and long-limbed, she seems at times to have arms and legs made of rubber. Her physical flopping about plays especially well when she plops provocatively and stretches cat-like, and especially when she is carried o bed in a loose-limbed drunken faint after a midnight skinny-dip.

The first act develops slowly and due to some high society Philadelphia accents many of the words are hard to hear, but you grow accustomed to the speech patterns and by the second act, when the action becomes more intense and more enjoyable, it is easier to hear what they’re saying.

A few actors in supporting roles deserve attention, most notably Russ Holm as William Tracy. Holm is always great as over-the-top boisterous eccentrics, and his portrayal as Uncle Willie is a joy to behold. John Munn is totally believable as Tracy’s somewhat stuffy and self-centered, but ultimately loving father. Also very enjoyable as the epitome of butlerhood is James Bass as Thomas. He doesn’t have much to say, but he doesn’t have to say anything.

And then there’s Max the night watchman who has no purpose in the play other than to allow for a cameo for local celebrity Joe Hyer. This is Hyer’s first performance at Harlequin. He also makes a brief appearance as the priest, Dr. Parsons.

Special kudos are due to costume designer Darren Mills.

WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays, 8p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. through April 6
WHERE: State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: prices vary, call for details
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

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