“The Philadelphia Story” is as smart a play as BYU has produced in some time, entertaining even as it deconstructs the wealthy class and examines its place in society. One admires the university just for staging something this classy; the fact that it’s fun to watch, too, is icing on the cake.
Written in 1939 by Philip Barry, the play occupies 24 hours in the life of wealthy Philadelphian Tracy Lord (Jessica Mockett). Having recently divorced her first husband, life-long chum and sparring partner C.K. Dexter Haven (Jeremy Selim), she is now set to marry one George Kittredge (Kenneth Ray).
Simultaneously, Tracy’s father (Robert Gibbs) is exiled in New York for cheating on Tracy’s mother (Sara Marie Crabb). To keep this indelicate matter out of a prominent magazine, Tracy’s brother Sandy (Cameron Hopkin) has bargained with the editor to let two journalists instead do a fluffy story about the Lord family, using the wedding as the centerpiece.
The journalists are Mike Connor (Luke Drake) and Liz Imbrie (Amy Dawn Addams), who at first don’t know that the Lords know they’re writing a story. (A weakness in this production is the awkward manner in which that conceit is eventually abandoned.) After spending time with Tracy, Mike voices what everyone else already knows: She shouldn’t marry George. There’s nothing especially wrong with him, but he’s not right for her.
Tracy, meanwhile, grapples with the realization that she has no tolerance for people’s faults. This comes to a head in an especially effective scene in which she confronts her father about his infidelity. Robert Gibbs, though having little stage time as the father, has never done finer work on a BYU mainstage than at this crucial moment. (Sara Marie Crabb, as his wife, is touchingly stoic here.)
The leads are all extremely well-suited to their roles. Jessica Mockett is elegant and natural as Tracy, gliding the show smoothly along on her graceful charm. Jeremy Selim’s Dexter has the perfect balance between glibness and forcefulness, with Luke Drake not a step behind him as the cynical Mike. As Liz, Amy Dawn Addams is quite believable, and Erin Chambers plays Tracy’s obnoxious little sister Dinah as a delightful pest.
The show is either a light drama or a heavy comedy; it is not purely one thing or the other. Its dialogue is intelligent (but not stuffy), requiring an audience that pays attention — but the disarmingly sweet conclusion makes any effort expended toward enjoying this utterly charming production all the more worthwhile.
I was struck while watching this play with the general high quality of the acting. Nearly everyone seemed perfectly cast and completely natural and comfortable.
It was merely an oversight and the stress of writing under a tight deadline that I forgot to mention the director of this play, Ms. Barta Heiner. She's great, and she's a joy to watch as Crazy Old Lady in the film "Brigham City." Again, perfect casting.