CHAUTAUQUA - The Chautauqua Theater Company plans to open its 2012 season with a lot of laughs.
The first play of the season will be "The Philadelphia Story," by Rochester native Philip Barry. The play was a major hit on Broadway in 1939-40, but the plot is better known from the 1940 feature film, which starred Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart. The same plot was later made into the musical film "High Society," which starred Frank Sinatra.
Indeed, the trailer to the film proclaims proudly that at the time the film was made, the play had already been selling out for 10 months, "at $4.40 per ticket!!!"
First, I'll share enough of the plot to -- I hope -- whet your appetite to see the production. Next, I've been out to Chautauqua several times, talking with the play's director, three of the good looking young actors who will be playing the roles made famous by the big stars of an earlier era. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to share with you all I learned from all of them and to telling you about the rest of the season to come.
THE PHILADELPHIA STORY
I'd probably better begin with a reminder that there was a 1993 film which won a Best Actor Oscar for Tom Hanks, in which he played a young lawyer, suffering from AIDS. I've talked to two separate readers who thought the Chautauqua play was a stage version of that film. In fact, the title of that film was just "Philadelphia," and this is a very different story, indeed.
"The Philadelphia Story" centers on a beautiful young woman named Tracy Lords Haven. She is the daughter of a very wealthy couple on the Philadelphia "Main Line," as that city's posh society used to describe itself. The curtain rises on the day before her planned wedding to George Kitteridge, a hard driving executive from her father's company, who has images of himself and Tracy in the halls of Congress some day, if not the White House.
Living in the mansion next door is one C.K. Dexter Haven, who we learn has grown up as a friend and playfellow of Tracy's. Furthermore, the two were married briefly, but have now divorced.
Haven has decided that he didn't do a good job as Tracy's husband, but he loves her, and he thinks she deserves a better husband the second time around than the hard-driving Kitteridge, so he has made up his mind to prevent the coming nuptials.
Into this situation come a reporter and a photographer for the 1940s' version of one of the gossip tabloids, which earns its money by prying into the privacy of the rich and famous. The handsome reporter is Macaulay (Mike) Conner, who is ashamed of the kind of writing he is expected to do for his tabloid, and who has published a volume of beautiful short stories which hasn't received the sort of popular support which it deserves.
The photographer, who has more than a professional interest in Conner, is Elizabeth Imbrie. She's one of those sadder but wiser girls we've heard so much about. The publisher of their newspaper has threatened to print an expose of Tracy's father, and his liaison with a New York City chorus girl, unless she allows the pair to be present throughout the wedding.
The whole story is enriched with a significant list of colorful relatives, servants and other comic types. There are genuine laughs throughout the play, and yet, there is real analysis of human behavior and societal values, lying in wait for anyone who is willing to go one layer deeper.
It is a well-known story in theatrical history that in the late 1930s, Miss Hepburn made a series of films which were not considered successes. Indeed, she had been labeled "box office poison" by the kind of news publication such as employs Mike and Liz.
In 1939, Barry, who was a playwright who had enjoyed a long list of successes on Broadway, decided to write "The Philadelphia Story" specifically for Hepburn, modeling the character of Tracy on her own personality and character traits. There are two versions of this. One is that he knew and admired her acting talents and wanted to provide a showcase for her to prove her skill as an actress.
The second is that her boyfriend at the time, the mysterious Howard Hughes, paid him a lot of money for his efforts. Either way, he wrote the play, it was the hit of the 1939-40 Broadway season, and MGM Studios wanted to make it into a movie. Ms. Hepburn, who owned the rights to the story agreed, on the condition that she continue to play the lead, and that she have approval on the writing of the screenplay, and the hiring of the director and the other members of the cast.
You'll note, they call it "show business," not "show art." But, the result was a success. James Stewart won the Best Actor Oscar for portraying the reporter, and Donald Ogden Stewart won the Oscar for Best adaptation of a screenplay. She picked George Cukor to direct. She wanted Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy for the other leads, but when they weren't available and Gable had a known antipathy to Cukor, she "settled" for Grant and Stewart.
And now the film is on the "Best 100 Films Ever Made" of just about every author and institution which has ever made such a list.
Chautauqua is going to do all the humor and give it the energy and excitement of young actors and a chance to be in the same room and breathe the same air with them while they're doing it. The play opened yesterday at the Bratton Family Theater, and will run through July 8. Curtain times vary, so make sure when you buy your tickets that you are certain when the performance will begin.
Andrew Borba is the Associate Artistic Director of the CTC, and "The Philadelphia Story" is his third production which he has directed at Chautauqua. He has appeared as an actor in four productions at Chautauqua, and has worked as text coach and in other positions in a number of productions.
It's always a pleasure to interview him, because he is energetic and very intelligent. He is one of those people from whom ideas just pour, and everything he says is worthy of quotation.
I asked if it was a challenge to produce a play which is fixed in a great many people's minds as a successful film. He replied that the play is somewhat different from the film, and that the screenplay was so well adapted from the script -- and was kept so close to the original -- that it made it much easier. "I think of the play as 'a movie with benefits,"' he said. "The play goes more deeply into the lives of the characters, and the greater the depth, the more we have to work with."
He said that he and his production team and his attractive young cast are determined to live up to the movie, while producing the play.
The director praised the lighting and set designers for making possible his view of the action. "All of the major characters change during the play. Each of them grows or changes his view of the world or at least of their situation," he said. "I wanted a set which could allow the audience to view the house where the play is set from many different perspectives. They've made that possible by building the set on a turntable, which was quite a technical feat, but has turned out to work very well."
He praised the woman who was hired to help the actors produce the voice and speech production for the play, saying she is one of the very best such coaches in the world. "Actors in the present time can seem unnatural when they try to speak words which were written more than 70 years ago, in the manner which was used them. But, I think even audience members who well remember those days will find our actors speaking in the correct manner, while being completely understood. This play is so well written that every single line serves some function in the plot, and we think we're doing that craftsmanship justice."
I wondered if the production was in any way done differently for performance at Chautauqua than it would be for performance in a big city. He replied that it was not, in any way, different. "But I do think that we've produced a great deal of really American theater," he concluded. "The ideas and events of this play are uniquely American, and they give us an opportunity to examine who and what we are, and to laugh a lot, as well."
We had the opportunity to speak briefly with three of the actors from the Chautauqua production: Carolyn Holding, Dave Quay and Max Roll.
CAROLYN HOLDING is from New York City, where she will soon be entering her final year in the Graduate Acting Program of New York University. She did her undergraduate work at Harvard. Among the plays in which she has performed are "A View from the Bridge," "Metamorphoses," "The Cherry Orchard," "Twelfth Night" and "You Never Can Tell." She will portray Tracy Lords, the part made famous by Katharine Hepburn.
She is a tall, lovely young woman. Despite a hot, muggy morning, she comes to the interview looking wonderful, with her hair looking like one of those shampoo commercials on television and her posture perfect.
"I had some trouble separating my role from Hepburn's performance at the very beginning," she admitted. "The part was written for her, and the words chosen and the behavior described for in the script made it almost impossible not to fall into her cadences and her unique mannerisms and speech patterns. But the more we rehearse and analyze Tracy as a person, the more I find it easy to offer my own views of her."
Some writers have criticized the script of this play, claiming that it portrays the surrender by a young woman of her own beliefs and behaviors and her acceptance of a more traditionally feminine manner of living. The actor disagrees.
"I think most people, in high school and even in college, try to make themselves into their idea of the person they would like to be. We build a kind of armor around ourselves, against anything we don't want in our lives. But nearly everyone reaches a period of crisis in which we have to open ourselves up to deal with the things in life which we haven't experienced or haven't understood. Tracy learns to live more successfully and happily in the world which surrounds her, but she isn't pushed into anyone else's mold. She finds her true self," she said.
I asked if the young New Yorker is enjoying her stay at Chautauqua. "I love Chautauqua," she answered. "It's like a summer camp for intellectuals."
She says she and a friend from the theater company went down to the lake shore on a recent evening and just experienced the darkness, the quiet and the vast array of stars which can be seen when the lights of New York City aren't drowning them out. "Being surrounded by an atmosphere of learning and culture makes it so much easier to take a character into oneself and take acting beyond pretending," she said.
The actor laughingly reported that she played her first major role when she was in ninth grade, when she played Lola, the devil's temptress in a production of "Damn Yankees."
"I had no idea of most of what was happening in that role, at that time," she said.
When she finished with Chautauqua and with NYU, where does Ms. Holding wish to go? "At this point, I'm just hungry for new experiences," she said. "I've never done much film acting, and I'd like to experience that. I'd like to do the New York Stage and the Regional Stage, and every kind of acting which is out there.
DAVE QUAY is returning for his second consecutive year with the CTC. He also is preparing to begin his final year with the Graduate Acting Program of New York University and did his undergraduate study at Emery University, in Georgia. He is a native of New Hampshire, and he reports that Chautauqua has many sights and places which bring his original home to mind.
Among his past roles have been "All My Sons," "All's Well That Ends Well," "Orpheus and Eurydice," "Dracula" and "She Stoops to Conquer." He has worked for a number of years with the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, an organization associated with the Big Apple Circus which works with doctors and hospital staffs to provide entertainment and the healing of laughter to gravely ill patients.
Quay will be playing C.K. Dexter Haven, the husband who has been cast off by Tracy, who is now plotting to prevent her making another marital mistake.
"I don't see Dexter as a modern version of Petruchio," he said. Petruchio is the character who plays the leading role in the taming of the shrewish woman, from Shakespeare's famous comedy of the same name. "I see Dexter as a man who used to be an alcoholic and who found living his life to be just an easy coasting along, but who has struck bottom and has come to see everything from a new point of view. He isn't out to conquer Tracy; he's truly trying to help her see things the way he sees them now."
"His greatest problem is that he is surrounded by people who knew him before his transformation, and who keep wanting to pressure him back into how he was before," he continued. "He's witty and he's smart, and he enjoys the teasing and heckling which goes on between himself and Tracy, but he's a serious man and he cares about her very much."
The actor reports that very early in life, he formed an interest in making films. "Other kids read about dinosaurs or about sports. I've always read about the technical end of making films and about acting and performing," he said.
Quay loves all the greenery and the open skies at Chautauqua, and he loves the way the CTC works to make their company of young actors part of the community and to make the company everyone's acting company.
He thinks his most valuable experience as an actor has been the opportunity to play Marc Antony, in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," which he did for nearly a year. "I played the part with a touring company in Georgia, performing in school libraries and other such sites, but then the company decided to make it one of their mainstage productions, and I got to do it with full professional sets, costumes, and so on. Being able to reach out to audiences in so many different ways and to live with a character and grow with him was really an education in itself," he said.
Does he feel Cary Grant's ghost looking over his shoulder as he plays the part which is so associated with the late actor?
"I suspect Grant's ghost has better things to do than stare over my shoulder," he laughed. "Almost every part has already been played by other actors, and we each bring different things to the roles. "The Philadelphia Story is a strong, beautiful story, and this production is going to be strong and funny and moving. That's what matters.