The Philadelphia Story. Playwright: Philip Barry. At: Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at the Victory Gardens Greenhouse,
2257 N. Lincoln. Phone: 773-871-3000; $35-$40. Runs through: Jan. 6
In 2007, when wealthy young ladies revel in mischief meant to flout convention, a socialite who holds herself circumspect in her demeanor would seem a good thing. But this is 1939, and so the well-born Tracy Lord is berated by her ex-husband for her absence of 'sympathy' regarding his drinking problem during their marriage and chastised by her skirt-chasing father for her refusal to overlook his infidelities with 'an understanding heart,' much as the household politely ignores Uncle William's sly habit of pinching women's derriéres.
And therein lies the obstacle in Philip Barry's otherwise appealing romantic comedy. How many times have we heard perpetrators of antisocial antics excuse their incorrigibility with precisely these words, or family members—female ones, especially—exhorted to turn a blind eye to the irresponsibility of their kinfolk? But Barry is not advocating approval of bad behavior. Quite the contrary, he is championing the generosity that accepts individuals for their virtues, rather than defining them by their faults. The heiress' mistake is not her idealism, but her refusal to acknowledge imperfections—her own as well as those of others—and move on, despite them. After she embarks on a champagne-fueled skinny-dip with a visiting journalist on the eve of her wedding, however, the manner in which her transgression is received by her peers serves to illustrate the difference between self-serving sham and charity toward all.
Shawn Douglass' direction of this Remy Bumppo production likewise allows us to take our own lesson from Barry's sermon, giving no special emphasis to the troublesome utterances any more than to the quaint catch-phrases of the period ( e.g., 'Like fun!', 'Suds!' and 'Golly Moses!' ) . And while this interpretation is not without its oddities—what's with the Mary Pickford hair on kid sister Dinah, and who instructed Steve Key, playing the newshound from Indiana, to channel James Cagney for the second act?—its elevation of human values over artificial distinctions and populist compassion for its characters, whatever their status, more than compensate for the occasional stilted moment. So does the sumptuous old-money ambience invoked by Rachel Laritz' museum-accurate costumes ( check out the stockings worn by Wendy Weber's smartcracking shutterbug ) and Jacqueline and Richard Penrod's antique-strewn country estate. And did I mention an accordion rendition of Lydia, The Tattooed Lady?