A Film Classic Returns to Stage: Director Noel Hanley on THE PHILADELPHIA STORY


Starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart, the 1940 film adaptation of Philip Barry’s play THE PHILADELPHIA STORY remains a classic from the Golden Age of American cinema. In some ways, the brilliance of the performances outshine the humor and entertaining playfulness of Barry’s script about the escapades of a Philadelphia socialite in the run-up to her wedding. An upcoming production at Allens Lane Theater returns the play to the stage, giving audiences a new opportunity to revisit the still-contemporary comedy. Phindie talked to director Noel Hanley about the production.

[Allens Lane Theater, 601 West Allens Lane] January 10-26, 2020; allenslane.org

Phindie: What appeals to you about The Philadelphia Story?

Noel Hanley: The appeal of this play, to me and I hope others, is the wacky family dynamic. Any play is usually a story about people. Though a comedy, this play explores some rather delicate family issues—the father leaving the family and having an affair. The daughter going through a divorce, now perched on the edge of another marriage, but is she any the wiser?

Phindie: Do you think it holds special appeal to Philadelphia audiences?

Noel Hanley: This story should have a strong local appeal, of course on the Main Line, but also in our neighborhood, as many of the beautiful mansions in Chestnut Hill, Germantown were built as summer houses for Philadelphians, much like Ardrossan. These exquisite pieces of architecture are part of what makes the Philadelphia area so special. We don’t have castles after all!

Phindie: Why did you want to put the play on in 2020?

Noel Hanley: Producing this play in our 2020 season at Allens Lane made sense to me as we opened our season with The Insanity of Mary Girard, a Philadelphia story of another type. I was looking for the thread of Philadelphia…

Phindie: What in the play remains relevant? Are there some things that seem dated?

Noel Hanley: In some ways the play is dated, a comedy of manners if you will. But in other ways it remains relevant; this play is based upon a real story of the anglophile estate, Ardrossan, and the multi generational family who lived, and in some cases still lives, there. The Montgomery-Scott family is notable in the history of Philadelphia.

Phindie: The film version is so good and indelible. What are the challenges in returning the work to the stage?

Noel Hanley: The playwright, Philip Barry, based his heroine, Tracy, on Helen Hope Montgomery, who was a close personal friend. He stayed at Ardrossan many times, and was close to the intricacies of the family. It was believed that he also hoped that by playing Tracy in the film, Katherine Hepburn’s career would experience a much needed jump start!

I felt that the film was memorable and wonderful, which of course posed a huge challenge to a theater director. Film and theater are two different ways of communicating, and as theater actors we need to be mindful of how to best tell our story to a live audience.

Katherine Hepburn in the original Broadway production, 1939.

Phindie: Did you encourage your actors to watch the film?

Noel Hanley: No!! I want my actors to develop their own approach to their character; after research, scene work, and consultations with me. We also have to be sensitive to the interaction each actor has with their scene partner(s). I always ask my actors NOT to see any film which may have been made of our play. It was interesting in this case to learn that many of my actors were in fact not familiar with the film!

Phindie: What do you think will surprise audiences about the play and this production?

Noel Hanley: I hope you , and every audience member!, enjoys the show and is surprised that though a very well heeled family, this is nevertheless a story of a family, with allies ‘foibles, delights, embarrassments, and love.

Phindie: Thanks Noel!

The Philadelphia Story plays January 10-26, 2020, at Allens Lane Theater in Mount Airy. A talkback with local writers Thomas Keels and Janney Scott follows the 2pm matinee on January 19. Scott is the granddaughter of Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, the model for the character of Tracy Lord portrayed in the film by Katherine Hepburn. Keels has written two books on the Gilded Age of Philadelphia, the era in which the play takes place.

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.