UA Students Revive Hepburn Classic

Imagine marrying out of raging passion, then divorcing out of tempestuous anger. Fast-forward two years and you’re getting ready for a second big day. Your ex-husband shows up, out of the blue, with an attractive stranger. Now you find yourself torn between three men: What do you do?

That’s what Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord must deal with the weekend of her second wedding, in the University of Alabama Department of Theatre and Dance presentation of Phillip Barry’s comedy “The Philadelphia Story.”

Barry wrote the role for Katharine Hepburn, who both financed and starred in the 1939 Broadway hit. It was based on the life of a gadfly socialite who married a friend of Barry’s. Hepburn also starred in the 1940 movie, with Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart as co-stars. It saved her career, becoming her first movie success after a succession of flops had led to Hepburn being deemed “box-office poison.” “The Philadelphia Story” has also been adapted for radio and TV. The 1956 MGM musical “High Society,” with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, was based on Barry’s play.

Tracy divorces her first husband (C. K. Dexter Haven, Grant in the film) because he didn’t measure up to what she saw as family standards; among other things, he drank too much. She plans to marry George Kittredge, more a proper fit for high society. Reporter Mike (Stewart in the film) slips in under cover of friendship with Dexter, hoping to write a story on the wedding for gossipy Spy magazine. Threatened with a scandal piece involving her philandering father, Tracy lets Mike and his photographer hang around. After the antagonistic start, Mike and Tracy discover a mutual attraction. Before she marches down the aisle again, Tracy must decide whether dull but safe is any substitute for more challenging men.

“I’ve tried to find all the places where gender plays out,” said Annie G. Levy, the director for UA’s production. She recently joined the faculty as head of its master of fine arts directing program. “We don’t just let it lay there, we examine is as much as we can in the production.”

For her directorial debut at UA, Levy worked outside her comfort zone, in realistic, character-based comedy, whereas theater she’s done in New York and elsewhere tends toward more experimental, language- or spectacle-based plays.