Sunday, April 4, 2004
When "The Philadelphia Story" opened on Broadway in 1939, Americans were still "jumping out of windows and selling pencils on street corners and begging for nickels," says Lawrence director Ron Willis.
Yet in the wake of the Great Depression, common folk craved a glimpse into the daily lives of society's upper crust. So the Philip Barry play about the extravagant lifestyle of Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord went over like gangbusters.
The dashing Katharine Hepburn's portrayal of the exceedingly accomplished Ms. Lord forever popularized both the stage show and the 1940 film with co-stars Cary Grant and James Stewart.
Be that as it may, Willis, director of Lawrence Community Theatre's upcoming version of the classic, says impressive performances by the local cast will distinguish the Lawrence production.
"Katharine Hepburn so put a stamp on this play that it's going to be quite difficult for people who are wedded to that film ... to overcome that bias, but I think we stand a good chance of doing that because we have strong performers and they're giving strong performances," says Willis, former professor of theater and film at Kansas University.
The play, which opens Friday at the theater, 1501 N.H., follows Tracy Lord (Erin Burns) as she prepares for her second wedding. Unlike her first husband -- the rich but dissolute C.K. Dexter Haven (Mark Mackie) -- her current suitor, George Kittredge (Rodney Speirer), is a self-made man, not born into the privilege of high society.
When a scandal magazine shows up to cover the wedding, Lord falls for a cynical reporter with no pretensions. She must decide which man would make the best husband for her, but who will it be? Her new fiance? The reporter who broke through her "virgin goddess" facade and helped her find her softer side? Neither?
"The arc of development for Tracy is that she is a woman who learns how to be vulnerable and finds her humanity, even though she is such a perfect being that she is virtually unapproachable," Willis says.
He notes that the role is a formidable one.
"She has, for example, 534 speeches in the play," he says. "The next closest person has only 248, so she very much dominates the whole thing."
Emma Cook plays Tracy's younger sister, Dinah, and Peggy Sampson portrays Margaret, their mother. Nolan Washatka plays brother Sandy, while Dean Bevan plays Uncle Willie and Charles Whitman plays the father, Seth.
Reporters covering the wedding are Matt Dwyer as Mike Connor and Sarah Young as Liz Imbrie.
Other members of the ensemble include Charles Neuringer, Jeff Blair, Laura Rose, Ryan Nall, Mario Bonilla and Wiebke Huebner.
The show marks Willis' directorial debut with Lawrence Community Theatre. His son, Craig Willis, who owns Interior Trim Specialties, designed the set for the play.
He succeeded in making the surroundings appropriately glitzy for Ms. Lord and her band of high-society friends, Ron Willis says, especially with the hand-painted faux marble floor.
"You'll want to go up and tap it with your fingernail," Willis says.