Austin Playhouse's The Philadelphia Story

Don Toner's direction and a top-drawer cast make for a riotous evening in this version of Philip Barry's crisp comedy

Three on a match: (l-r) Stephen Mercantel, Jason Newman, Lara Toner, and Benjamin Summers (Photo courtesy of Christopher Loveless)

Austin Playhouse has called many venues "home" during its lifetime, from high schools to nightclubs, Penn Field to the ACC Highland campus, its current residence. But while the stage keeps changing, the quality onstage remains consistent. Artistic Director Don Toner knows his audience, what they want, and exactly how to give it to them. Though a typical mainstage season doesn't include a lot of "gritty" drama or boundary-pushing theatrically, chosen shows are executed with precision and passion.

The current production of Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story continues that tradition. The 1939 Katharine Hepburn vehicle at first seems a light drawing-room comedy, but as the script progresses, more layers and complexities emerge, revealing a script ahead of its time. Packed into its three-act structure are themes of adultery, communism, classism, and (given the time) incredible female agency. The combination of Toner's direction and a top-drawer cast make for a riotous evening as the lives of a Philadelphia socialite family unfold (unravel?) during preparations for the eldest daughter's wedding.

Lara Toner's Tracy Lord is feisty from the start, and the actress is in full control of the character's discovery throughout as she navigates through an ex-husband, a fiancé, and a potential suitor. At a few critical moments, she makes us almost feel Don Day's atmospheric lighting design as it switches from day to night and back again on Mike Toner's set, itself a great achievement of research and design. Stage managers rarely receive enough credit, but Rachel Dendy will here as she wrangles the many set, lighting, and costume changes with ease. Stephen Mercantel offers a great performance as George Kittredge, Tracy's fiancé, proving he can shine in any role assigned him. Tracy's first husband is played by Jason Newman, who exhibits a strength that comes from genuine affection wrapped in cockiness. Michael Stuart is hilarious as Uncle Willy, sporting a referenced toupee by costume designer Buffy Manners, who drapes every actor in both character- and period-perfect attire. As Lord's younger sister Dinah, Marie Rose Fahlgren is spunky and defiant, mischievous and gleeful. It takes a few moments to recognize known Brit Bernadette Nason with her spot-on Standard American dialect, and her performance as the scorned matriarch Margaret Lord is fully realized. Huck Huckaby plays the estranged patriarch Seth Lord with natural ease, and Christopher Loveless rounds out the family as Sandy Lord, his twitchy energy relaying his character's on-the-move nature. Benjamin Summers and Lara Wright give us a glimpse at the "other side" as reporters covering Tracy's wedding, and each brings a sense of individuality in the face of a party to which they'd otherwise not be invited. Dirk van Allen also gives a notable "there are no small roles" turn as Thomas, the Lords' bumbling butler.

Revisiting any more of the plot here may be a bad idea, as each moment builds toward the satisfying climax (as narratives have a strange tendency to do, eh?) and the sum of its parts might be deduced with too much information up front. Suffice to say, an audience's interest and curiosity builds with each lean-in moment, and there are plenty as the story unfurls. Those familiar with the 1940 film already know what's coming, minus a few characters, and Don Toner manages to give us that comfortable feeling of watching an old black-and-white. Seekers of overtly challenging and mind-bending fare should look elsewhere, perhaps even to the next Austin Playhouse production; those fond of a traditional well-made narrative sharpened to a fine point need look no further.

The Philadelphia Story

Austin Playhouse at ACC's Highland Campus, 6001 Airport, 512/476-0084
Through Dec. 20
Running time: 2 hr., 20 min.

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Austin Playhouse, Don Toner, Lara Toner, Mike Toner, Don Day, Buffy Manners, Jason Newman, Benjamin Summers, Stephen Mercantel, Bernadette Nason, Huck Huckaby, Michael Stuart, Dirk van Allen, Lara Wright, Marie Rose Fahlgren

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