When you hear “The Philadelphia Story,” you probably think of the iconic 1940 film and not the 1939 play it was based on. Wendy Wright says that’s a shame for playwright Philip Barry, whom she calls “the American Noel Coward.”
“ ‘The Philadelphia Story’ belongs right up there in the canon with ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ or ‘Hay Fever’ or some other classic American plays,” Wright says. “It’s something that should be seen and it’s a whole lot of fun.”
Wright is the director of the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s production of “The Philadelphia Story,” which runs through Sunday. The story may be familiar to fans of the Oscar-winning movie starring Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart and Cary Grant. Stubborn socialite Tracy Lord’s impending second wedding is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of irritable, but honorable tabloid reporter Mike Connor, as well as Tracy’s own ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven. A comedy of manners ensues as romantic entanglements new and old rise to the surface and the characters struggle to weave increasingly complicated webs of deception.
“The first time I sat down to read it, within the first page I was laughing,” Wright says. “It’s funny.”
Although Wright was previously familiar with the film version of “The Philadelphia Story,” she says she’s encouraged her actors to present an original spin on the material. That was particularly easy for some cast members who’d never seen the film, like Colleen Kartheiser, who plays Tracy Lord. Kartheiser says she’s looking forward to watching the movie for the first time after the Civic Theatre’s production is over.
“It’s huge shoes to fill, obviously, which is one reason I wanted to kind of try to avoid watching it,” she says. “I can’t be Katharine Hepburn. I can’t do that. That’s an unreasonable expectation. But I can sort of make the character my own and do the best I can with it.”
So far, her director seems exceptionally pleased with the results.
“I think within 10 or 15 minutes you’ll just forget all about Katharine Hepburn because (Kartheiser’s) really good,” Wright says. “They’re just very different.”
The Civic Theatre’s production will also put a completely original and thoroughly theatrical spin on its set transitions for the show. The set is constructed to rotate once during each of the play’s two acts, and actors who portray servants in the show will perform a choreographed dance routine onstage to reset furniture and props.
“They’re going to have a whole performance, if you will, during those set changes that I think will be extremely funny and very entertaining to anyone who sees it,” says actor Nick Boyer, who plays Mike in the show.
Boyer says he’s particularly enjoyed navigating the tangled romances between Tracy and the three male leads, noting that the relationships in the Civic Theatre’s production develop in ways that may surprise even diehard fans of the story.
“I think it’s fun to play with that, to play with the audience,” he says. “The audience is not going to know, unless they’ve seen the show, who she ends up with. So the stronger you can make the relationships between the characters, the more the audience can root for one character or the other … I think that creates a genuine interest in not only the show, but the characters that are in it.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
‘The Philadelphia Story’
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Arthur Miller Theatre
1226 Murfin, Ann Arbor
Tickets $11-$22 (tickets half off for mothers on Sunday with purchase of an additional ticket)