Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Breaking free: ‘The Philadelphia Story’ and ‘Airness’ open, troupes talk embracing flaws

“Airness” runs at Thalian Hall’s Ruth & Bucky Stein Studio Theatre Feb. 9-12 and 16-19 at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday through Saturday, 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $34.24 for adults and can be purchased here. (Courtesy Big Dawg Productions)

WILMINGTON — Two local theater companies are gearing up to open shows at Thalian Hall this weekend, offering audiences two stories set 80 years apart. 

Thalian Association will put on “The Philadelphia Story,” first produced in 1939 and made into a film the following year, both starring Golden Age leading lady Katharine Hepburn. The comedy-of-manners story will take Thalian’s mainstage on Friday night. 

Upstairs in the Ruth & Bucky Stein Studio Theatre, Big Dawg Productions will open “Airness” Thursday night. The contemporary play revolves around a quirky band of instrument-less musicians — air guitar players. 

“Airness” director Jace Carlyle Berry told Port City Daily he was introduced to the play by Steve Vernon, Big Dawg’s artistic director. The show was written by Chelsea Marcantel and premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville in 2017. 

“It was love at first read,” Berry said. “I was raised on classic rock, so it feels like it was meant to be.”

The story focuses around Nina, a newcomer to air guitar, who falls flat on her face during her first competition. However, in getting to know the fellow participants and their quest to become air guitar champions, Nina discovers there’s more to the art form than she first imagined. Two of those competitors are Cannibal Queen — sharp defender of her place as the only woman in the troupe, played by Ashley Flowers — and Atwood Boyd’s character, D Vicious, bad-boy reigning champ with a complicated past with Nina. 

“Cannibal Queen was a role written for me and I am stoked to bring her to life,” Flowers said. 

In preparation, she admitted to channeling Steven Tyler and Miley Cyrus.

Boyd told PCD he’s been using a less star-studded approach to capture D Vicious’ toxic masculinity by utilizing examples from his own life.  

“I feel like we’ve all met someone who is bafflingly buoyed into confidence by mediocre and undeserved accomplishments, and to me that’s at the core of D Vicious,” Boyd said. 

Both actors touched on the challenge of learning air guitar. They studied the air guitar professionals like Seven Seas and Airistotle, along with ‘80s rock videos. The two also embarked on weird hand exercises, interpretive dance, improvisation and “a healthy dose of spastic flailing.” 

“You have to go back to the roots of air guitar, of being a kid, home alone, rocking out in

your room without a single thought or care about how you look,” Berry said. “And then you find the courage and vulnerability to do that on stage and let an audience see you as your rawest self.” 

Taking a leap out of their comfort zone is just practicing what the play preaches. The show promotes a return to the unadulterated joy of being a kid, choosing to showcase one’s own version of weird instead of tucking it away, and embracing a community that accepts all forms of authenticity. 

“I hope audiences walk away from this show with a deeper appreciation and love for the communities and friends they have,” Berry said. “Oh, and I hope they go home headbanging.”

“The Philadelphia Story” director Kendra Goehring and lead actress Alissa Fetherolf experienced a similar set of freedom as they prepared for opening night, despite contending with the history and iconography of the story.

“I think we were able to really define these characters how we saw them,” Goehring said. 

The story follows wealthy socialite Tracy Lord, played by Fetherolf, as she prepares to marry new-money charmer George Kittredge (Jackson Cole). New York gossip reporter Macaulay “Mike” Connor (Ben Thomas-Reid) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Beth Corvino) convince Tracy to let them cover the high-profile ceremony with threats on her family’s reputation; also in attendance is Tracy’s ex-husband, yacht-designer C.K. Dexter Haven (Kaleb Edward Edley), who the Lords welcome back with open arms. Soon, Tracy is caught between the three men’s affections days before she’s set to walk down the aisle. 

The play was written by Philip Barry as a star-vehicle for Hepburn, who had been labeled “box-office poison” for a series of film flops, along with fellow Hollywood stars in 1938. The play and film catapulted Hepburn’s career back into the green, the precursor to one of the greatest film careers of any leading lady and four Academy Award wins for Best Actress — a record that hasn’t been beaten yet. 

Fetherolf tried to not focus on any of that, though, instead letting the text guide her depiction of Tracy. 

“[I] read it honestly,” Fetherolf said. “I tried to avoid doing an impersonation.”

Alissa Fetherolf as Tracy Lord in Thalian Association Community Theater’s “The Philadelphia Story.” (Courtesy TACT)

However, the script presented a challenge as well; Goehring said the play didn’t fully explore some of the characters’ relationships like the film did. Focusing on stripping down the character to their wants and needs — universal struggles like love, loss, privacy, class — allowed the cast to expand the story’s world and transcend its past iterations, Goehring indicated. 

“They are, even though written in a heightened way, real people and identifiable, so it already felt like a departure from Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart,” Goehring said. “We didn’t even try to be them — well, because you can’t.” 

Fetherolf said her main challenge was capturing the formality of Tracy in her physicality and the way she talks as a high-class lady. Fetherolf said she dressed in a posh and slightly restricted way during the rehearsal process to nail Tracy’s movements, then played with varying physicality to demonstrate Tracy’s emotional state throughout the play. 

And then there was the text. 

“The pitter-patter of the language in this time period is sometimes dizzying, not to mention odd syntax and phrases,” Fetherolf said. “Learning lines for this is almost more challenging than Shakespeare.”

Embracing the show in a new era, Goehring said modern mentality could place new judgements on the characters. She told her cast it’s their job to champion their character no matter what. 

“[L]ike real people some qualities and characteristics are not very becoming or likable,” she said.

For Tracy and the Lord family, some audience members may have a distaste for her wealth and privilege. 

“It’s easy to assume they have no troubles, but as we see in the show they are just a mess like everyone else,” Fetherolf said. “Every character in the show is struggling with some internal conflict that influences how they understand other people. Every person is just doing their best to navigate the life they’ve been handed.”

Therein lies the timelessness of “The Philadelphia Story”: It’s about human behavior, something that humans have yet to nail down in the near-century since the play’s premiere. 

“These people are identifiable, you might see a little bit of yourself in them,” Goehring said. “And that’s what I love about theatre.” 

“The Philadelphia Story” runs at Thalian Hall Main Stage Feb. 10-12 and 17-19 at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $41.73 for adults and can be purchased here.

“Airness” runs at Thalian Hall’s Ruth & Bucky Stein Studio Theatre Feb. 9-12 and 16-19 at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday through Saturday, 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $34.24 for adults and can be purchased here.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com 

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