Running through May 20 at 8 p.m.
$18, $16.50 seniors and students
730 Coleman Blvd., Mt. Pleasant
It's been five years and some 500 performances since Dave Reinwald and Keely Enright took an ex-gym in a Mount Pleasant strip mall and turned it into a cabaret-style theatre. To survive that length of time, they've tried to balance crowd-pleasing shows with more challenging fare. While they're not afraid to try something potty-mouthed once in a while — next season they'll mount David Mamet's hard-talking classic Glengarry Glen Ross — they know on which side their bread and circuses are buttered, so the balance is heavily tipped towards musicals, wry period dramas, and romantic comedies; a pretty sure draw for the people who pay their rent.
The romance is accentuated in the end-of-season production The Philadelphia Story. It's a familiar tale that's been filmed a couple of times (faithfully with Kate Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant; musically as High Society with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra). So the Playhouse is pushing a gentle, unassuming play with no big surprises in store for their intended audiences, and barring some slow-paced scenes, director Enright delivers.
The play's heroine ain't very nice. She's Tracy Lord (Emily Wilhoit), variously described as a goddess, a spinster, and a prig (by her father, no less). She's the ruler of a high-class 1930s world where privileged families are American idols, equivalent with royalty. Arrogance and selfishness filled the silver spoon she was born with, and she's already messed up one marriage as a result, driving her first husband to alcoholism.
The rest of the Lords are introduced as they prepare for Tracy's second wedding: Dinah is her precocious younger sister, Sandy (Ryan Ahlert) is her cheerful brother. Mother Margaret (Susie Hallat) tries to keep the family in line but isn't strict enough; Seth (Steve Fordham) is the thoughtful father. Comic relief comes courtesy of the butt-pinching Uncle Willie (E. Karl Bunch).
The family welcomes Tracy's new fiancée, George (Kevin Curler), into their bosom with few complaints. But the meddlesome Dinah invites Tracy's ex, C.K. Dexter Haven to the wedding, and two snooping journalists provide further opportunities for farce.
Emily Wilhoit waits for the end of the play to fully defrost her Ice Queen character. By the time she gets drunk and flirty with reporter Mike Connor (smoothly played by Brian Smith), the audience is desperately seeking a reason to like her. Otherwise, it's hard to care for such an unappealing bitch. Dexter Haven's a different kettle of fish, brought to sparkling life by Dave Reinwald. Aside from the occasional hard-to-hear naturalistic mumble, Reinwald holds the audience's interest throughout, conveying the love his character feels for Tracy with a few concise expressions. He builds an emotional core for the show, giving patrons someone to root for.
Katherine Long makes a confident Dinah, bouncing around the stage in ballet shoes or perching on a chair arm, spreading delicious gossip. Even when she's wearing a stripy blue shirt that matches the wallpaper behind her, she doesn't fade into the background. As Liz, the photojournalist with a "cunning little camera," Carole Moore creates some effectively subtle moments, reacting to the events around her. The other actors effectively make up a farcical ensemble, clad in snazzy '30s costumes, squeezing past each other on a compact set and delivering their lines with grins and gusto.
There's nothing wrong with emphasizing the humorous side of The Philadelphia Story, and there are a smattering of serious moments to make this seem like a couple of hours well spent. If anything, the comedy demands a screwball pace that it doesn't reach until the second act. With tighter timing and a few more performances as richly understated as Reinwald's and Moore's, this could be a greatproduction.