Emerson Stage gives old-school Philadelphia a facelift

The grandeur and glamour of the 1930s will arrive at the Semel Theatre on Feb. 28 when Emerson Stage’s production of Phillip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story opens. Mistaken identities, love triangles, fame, fortune and tabloid journalism converge for a show that is both historical and slyly humorous.

This comedy of manners revolving around a high-society wedding is directed by alumnus Spiro Veloudos who is currently the artistic director of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. For this production, he is returning to his roots.

“This is the first production I’ve directed at Emerson College in 33 years, so I’m very happy to be doing it,” he told The Beacon in an interview. Although he’s wanted to direct this play for quite a while, he waited for the right opportunity.

“At the Lyric they say, ‘Spiro, if you direct another 1930s play we will have to kill you!’ so when I had the chance to do The Philadelphia Story here, I jumped at it,” he said. “The period between the First World War and the Second World War and how we as a people changed during that period has always fascinated me.”

The nation’s prosperity at this point in history relates directly to the central characters in the play, as they come to terms with their own wealth or lack thereof and discover how their perceptions of each other are influenced by how prosperous they appear to be.

The play revolves around the second wedding of Tracy Lord, the eldest daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia family. On the day before the wedding, Liz Imbrie and Mike Connor, two tabloid reporters invited to cover the wedding, arrive with the intention of writing a story exposing the family’s indiscretions, including the patriarch’s affairs and absence at the wedding. In order to hide the truth from Imbrie and Connor, family members begin swapping identities and each person tries their best to distract the reporters, from Tracy interrogating them about their careers, to her younger sister Dinah greeting the guests in French before singing a verse of “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.”

Wedding preparations consume the first fifteen minutes, but it’s only with Tracy’s insistence that her mother acknowledges her daughter’s joy about marrying George Kittredge, a former coal miner. Instead, both her mother and sister continue to bring up Tracy’s first husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, who both of them see as a more favorable in-law. The wedding plans are thrown off even more with the arrival of Haven. His visit rekindles the emotions the two once shared and causes Tracy to question her life’s decisions.

Working with an entirely student cast might be difficult for a director who is used to dealing with professionals but Veloudos insists there is many similarities between the two. He cites differences in rehearsal time and, to a certain degree, more coaching with student actors but says he tries to treat everyone, from cast to crew to designers, as he would treat any professional he works with at the Lyric.

Although the two versions differ, the play was memorably adapted for the screen in 1940 with Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart playing Tracy, Haven and Connor respectively. Veloudos cannot deny drawing inspiration from the Oscar-winning film. He describes the movie’s screenplay as slightly more accessible, since it was written for three stars, but still stands by his interpretation of the play.

“We’ve tried to make the play as accessible as we can,” he said. “The play has a lot more depth to it.but to say that there aren’t influences from the movie would be a misnomer.”

In order to present the play as accurately as possible, sets, props and costumes are all period specific. Even the stage crew will be costumed in order to avoid any lapses from 1940 to 2008. The set, although simple, uses period furniture to bring out the setting.

Using a color palette of blue, orange and cream, set designer Nick Renaud captures the family’s wealth by incorporating specific objects, including the chandelier hanging from the ceiling into his design.

Because the play is so dependent on its setting, it is questionable whether or not its messages will still resonate with audiences.

Veloudos, however, is confident that the ideas presented in the play are still relevant today. Comparisons between the tabloid reporters that attend Tracy’s wedding and today’s rabid paparazzi aside, The Philadelphia Story’s themes continue to permeate modern life.

Veloudos even goes so far as to analyze the play’s characters in a modern context.

“The whole theme about why Tracy takes this journey is can she accept herself?” he said. “Can she accept the weakness in her own character, so that if she can accept the weaknesses of herself as a human being, then she can accept the weaknesses of others.”

Once such a discovery becomes apparent, the audience begins to form a connection with the story and with the imperfect humanity of the play’s central characters. In addition to this idea of self-discovery, Veloudos cites social acceptance and class structure as major themes. It is not until Tracy accepts herself and her position in life that she can move on and deal with the actions of the other characters.

The Philadelphia Story balances the simple humor of mistaken identities with a statement about class structure that is still prevalent in today’s society. Although it is a comedy at its core, Spiro Veloudos’ production draws on the historical and thematic elements of the plot in order to create a show that is entertaining as well as profound.

The Philadelphia Story will be playing in the Semel Theatre from Feb. 28 through to the March 1 with a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m.