There's no way around it. Any theater staging "The Philadelphia Story," Philip Barry's 1939 high-society romantic comedy, has to contend with the holy trinity of Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, stars of George Cukor's enormously successful and acclaimed 1940 movie adaptation. The version now playing at the Bowie Community Theatre fights a spirited, earnest fight against these ghosts, and though you might want to rent or re-rent the movie version at evening's end, you'll also be glad you came.
The play chronicles the chaotic 24 hours preceding the wedding of blue-blood Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord, played here by Antigone Juvelis. The point of the story, beyond a few glancing discussions of class structure, is wit and more wit, and director G.W. Meredith Jr. delivers the humor fast and usually true. This fealty to the original can create some discomfort, though; we're brought unironically into a world that winks at spousal abuse, finds funny the prospect of girls reading too much, plays along with derrier-pinching uncles and is more than happy to endorse this nugget from the Lord family patriarch, played with appropriate self-satisfaction by Mark Mead: "What most wives fail to realize is that their husbands' philandering has nothing whatever to do with them."
Oh, yes, I see.
The opportunity might have existed to turn some of these moments on their heads, to wink back at them, but at least by playing it straight, Meredith makes it clear we're watching a period piece. The production is costumed, set and delivered as if the past half-century was nothing more than an overly complicated dream, and there is something relaxing about all of this raw innocence, this permission to simply have a good time while love finds its rocky way.
The show is at its funniest in the second of three acts, when most of the central characters, especially Tracy, down too much champagne and start to say the wrong things. If Tracy is to fall off a pedestal, though, it would have helped to have first seen her on it. The show centers on her transformation from an aloof ice queen into a self-proclaimed "human being" at the final curtain, but the Tracy who Meredith and Juvelis give us from her first lines is in no danger of seeming a "distant goddess." She is sneering, pursing her lips, stalking across the stage and snapping at her sister--entirely human behavior. Her tone is sarcastic, rather than dry, and this makes all the later going-on about her intimidating remoteness harder to buy.
For those familiar with the film, there is a pleasant surprise in store: the character of Sandy Lord, played by Craig Allen Mummey, also a co-producer of the show. Mummey is the best physical actor of the group, and he does fine work as Tracy's sleep-deprived sibling, excised from the movie, who sets the play's resolution in motion.
In fact, all the supporting characters seem freer to move, more spontaneous--and perhaps less accountable to their Hollywood counterparts. Rachel Miller's Dinah Lord--Tracy's scheming, eavesdropping little sister--pushes the battiness a bit far at first but settles in quickly. By the end of the play, given the largest laugh line of the night, she delivers. "The Philadelphia Story" is unlikely to find itself the subject of a Broadway revival, and keeping such enjoyable lighter fare alive is, of course, one of the best purposes of community theater.
"The Philadelphia Story" will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; at 2 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 30 at the Bowie Playhouse, Whitemarsh Recreation Park, Route 3 near Route 450, Bowie. Adults $12, students and seniors $8. For reservations, call 301-805-0219.
CAPTION: Dan Kavanaugh and Antigone Juvelis charm each other in "The Philadelphia Story."