Acting brings 'Philadelphia Story' alive at Bowie Community Theatre; Stab at upper class carried off with humor


Bowie Community Theatre's current production of Philip Barry's "The Philadelphia Story" provides a satisfying evening of theater on several levels.

The play -- commissioned for a young Katharine Hepburn -- opened on Broadway in 1939. Hepburn took it to Hollywood, where it became a 1940 classic film also starring Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. Later it was reborn in a 1956 movie called "High Society" starring Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby with music by Cole Porter.

In 1998, "High Society" resurfaced with additional Porter tunes. It lasted only four months on Broadway before going on the road.

The play's longevity can be attributed to its articulate characters, whose interactions cause profound inner changes as cherished beliefs are challenged. The story centers on spoiled, rich Tracy Lord, whose impending marriage to the self-made George Kittredge is not a happy prospect for Tracy's ex-husband, Dexter Haven, to contemplate.

Dexter appears on the scene shortly after the arrival of tabloid reporter Mike Connor, who is accompanied by his devoted colleague, street-smart photographer Liz Imbrie. Tracy's parents, Margaret and Seth Lord, manage to keep up appearances despite Seth's publicized philandering.

Tracy's younger sister, Dinah, delights at adding confusion to the complex situations. Uncle Willie provides comic moments with his acerbic wit and pinching of young women. Tracy's brother, Sandy, is manipulative and shallow, personifying Connor's preconceptions of the upper class.

In 1940, "The Philadelphia Story" was not as cliche-ridden as it now seems with the maligned, good-hearted debutante, the artist who compromises her integrity for a well-paying job as a photographer, the brilliant novelist who makes a better living as a tabloid reporter -- all are highly recognizable today.

There are lots of funny lines, and goofy mispronunciations from Dinah that amuse -- "an ill licket passion;" Tracy introducing her ex-husband, "My first husband -- his name for the moment escapes me." The priggish, stuffed-shirt George Kittridge is fun to dislike.

The fact that the Bowie cast is able to rekindle interest in the stereotypical characters is a tribute to their acting skills. Although we in the audience care little about the misjudged upper class, we can appreciate the skill it takes to breathe life into them and as the play develops.

Able to do this with a disarming naturalness is Don Kavanagh, a skilled actor who plays Mike Connor brilliantly. Jim Lefter is equally well cast in the slightly less-demanding role of Dexter Haven. Craig Allen Mummey showed flashes of brilliance in the role of Sandy, but his performance was not as polished, at times seeming stiff and too studied. Thembi Duncan's Liz was delightfully natural and convincing. Although Rachel Miller's Dinah Lord sometimes verged on overdone, Miller invested such energy in her characterization that she provided several high moments.

As Tracy Lord, Antigone Juvelis often seemed not in command -- losing her timing as she forgot her lines. This performance represents Juvelis' Bowie debut, and I attended on opening weekend, two factors that must be taken into account.

As Tracy's fiance, Mark Hamilton romps through the role delivering every pompous, self-righteous nuance. Mel Grier's Uncle Willie is a delight, with Grier savoring some of the play's best lines. Mark Mead is generally convincing as Tracy's father, Seth Lord, although at times his delivery takes on a monotone cadence.

BCT's "The Philadelphia Story" is an evening of enjoyable theater that I suspect will only improve. Performances are on weekends through Oct. 30, and seats may be reserved by calling the BCT hot line at 301-805-0219.

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