Actor's Studio founder and Broadway director Robert Lewis wrote in his memoirs about a 1931 exchange he had with a then-unknown Katharine Hepburn. Lewis was working for the legendary Group Theatre, an American ensemble that emulated the venerable Moscow Art Theatre by producing plays that preached august emotional truths and forever changed the course of the American theater with its notable achievements. The Group's messianic fervor was constantly fueled by its leader, Harold Clurman, who talked to the actors at length every Friday night at 11:30 about the need for a socially relevant theater in America.
At one of those late-night lectures, Lewis noticed that Hepburn, then an understudy, wasn't terribly impressed with Clurman's sermon, and he asked her at the end of the talk what she thought about it. Hepburn reportedly replied, "This may be all right for you people if you want it, but you see, I'm going to be a star."
Hepburn made good on her vow eight years later, when she performed the leading role in Philip Barry's Broadway comedy The Philadelphia Story. Her shrewd business sense proved to be more valuable to her than any number of years spent with the Group Theatre would have been: Along with Barry and Howard Hughes, she owned a 75 percent interest in the play. Her financial stake in the project ensured that she would reprise her stage role in George Cukor's 1942 film version of the comedy, and the film's enormous success earned her movie stardom on par with that of co-stars Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.
Encouraged by the film's enduring popularity, the Aurora Fox Theatre Company is presenting Barry's play as its second production of the season. Rather than rely on established stars to propel the play, director Chip Walton has instead put his faith in a solid cast that performs the play as an ensemble piece. It's a choice that sometimes runs counter to a play that needs strong performers to carry it through some rough spots. Nevertheless, Walton's treatment proves to be a fresh and entertaining interpretation of the classic tale.
Tracy Lord (Michelle Kaye, in the Hepburn part) is the daughter of a Main Line Philadelphia family. Recently di-vorced from C.K. Dexter Haven (David Russell), she is engaged to a successful young snob, George Kittredge (Bill Lip-pincott). At the invitation of Tracy's brother, Sandy Lord (Christopher Whyde), a weekly newspaper known for its gossip pages sends reporter Mike Connor (Michael Barr) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Christen Simon) to cover the wedding. Sandy's largesse to the tabloid duo is not genuine, however. In reality, he wishes to divert their attention from the bigger (and more damaging) story of an affair between his father, Seth (Paul Page), and a Broadway dancer.
When the family matriarch, Margaret (Erin Prestia), discovers reporters in her home, she quickly realizes that she can't let them meet up with her unsuspecting husband, so she introduces the family's Uncle Willie (Joey Wishnia) as the head of the Lord household. Predictably, the special day doesn't go as planned for anyone, and we settle in after intermission to watch the wealthy socialites and their hangers-on sort out their byzantine affairs.
Walton and his cast give the play the old college try: Their collective efforts have the look and feel of a well-done university production, which is understandable, since many in the cast are recent college graduates. To their credit, the enthusiasm and commitment that the actors bring to their work are exactly what a difficult period piece like Philadelphia needs to sustain it over the course of two hours; the younger performers' college training and sense of discipline serve them well.
Kaye leads the company with an admirable performance as the socialite with a liberal attitude. Peeking out from behind the considerable shadow that Hepburn cast across the role, she earnestly reveals to us a woman who desperately needs to join the human race--as opposed to managing it. Russell makes a fine Dexter, deflating Tracy's high opinion of herself one moment while giving himself a swift, good-natured kick in the pants the next. The more experienced Wishnia and Page anchor the production with their well-conceived portrayals of the two elder statesmen. And fourteen-year-old Rachel Risen shines as Tracy's younger sister, Dinah.
Walton's directorial efforts are, as usual, solid and imaginative. In keeping with the educational tone of the production, he's provided us with a full-page timeline--as well as a full-page director's note--to tell us all that we need to know before we watch the play unfold.
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The show's technical elements are also well-done; in particular, Pete Nielson creates a splendid lighting design that captures the overriding mood of each scene while also managing to artfully enhance many of the play's moments with subtle effects.
Try as they might, however, Walton and his company can't quite make up for the production's lack of star quality. All the notes and factual information provided in the program are no substitute for the experience and substance that more seasoned performers would bring to the leading roles. For the Aurora Fox to take its place as a local troupe of the first rank, it needs to bolster its commitment to art with some good old-fashioned show-business sense.
But Hepburn herself had to start somewhere. For now, audiences will have to settle for enjoying the work of performers who are, in some cases, stars in the making.
The Philadelphia Story, through December 13 at the Aurora Fox Theatre, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, 361-2910.