On its surface, the retro romantic-comedy charmer The Philadelphia Story seems a mere trifle--a pleasant evening of theater offering a look into the family foibles of upper class East Coasters.
Pioneer Theatre Company's take on Philip Barry's classic certainly works on that level. Any fans of witty wordplay and so-called "comedy of manners" will enjoy the dive into life at the Lord estate, where elder daughter Tracy (Allison McLemore) is slated to get married the weekend the play takes place in late June, 1938.
The show has more layers, though, that are readily apparent as more characters join the wedding weekend.
The arrival of a couple of tabloid reporters shines a light on Americans' obsession with celebrity and the idle rich--even back in the 1930s. The Lord family patriarch has caused a scandal through his alleged relationship with a New York City dancer, and we still love a little personal scandal in our "news" in 2013. And a love triangle/quadrangle between Tracy, her fiance George (Jay Stratton), her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Todd Gearhart) and the tabloid writer Macaulay Connor (Todd Lawson) is a classic combination of "will-they-or-won't-they-and-will-it-be-ugly?" relationship mayhem that fuels all manner of modern "reality" television.
Simply put, The Philadelphia Story's various machinations and subplots would fit right into an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. I'm going to refrain from spoilers for the benefit of those who don't know the story, but suffice to say, there is plenty here for modern audiences to relate to.
I don't mean that Kardashian comparison as an insult, either--just a reflection that the popularity of Barry's show is understandable given how timeless his themes proved to be. And together on Pioneer's stage, those themes become a witty show that should please fans familiar with The Philadelphia Story, as well as newbies discovering it for the first time. (For those folks, I highly recommend the film version with Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart--great stuff).
Pioneer's production leans heavily on McLemore's skills, and she proves up to the task of playing the character that evolves the most over the course of the show, from the uptight bride-to-be to a young woman seemingly just discovering who she really is through the events unfolding over the weekend. Other performance highlights come from Joyce Cohen as Tracy's mother Margaret, and Bill Nabel as Uncle Willy.
Wilson Chin's scenic design deserves a nod--the lifestyle of the '30s-era wealthy came through loud and clear through his work, as it did through costume designer David Toser's. The combined efforts of the artists involved on the production side certainly were able to evoke the era with great style.
The Philadelphia Story runs Mondays through Saturdays at Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theater through Jan. 26. Visit the Pioneer Website for showtimes and tickets.