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THEATER : Strong Acting Brings Humanity to 'Holiday' : Writer Philip Barry exposes the foibles of the very wealthy in this lesser known work.

September 02, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Style, wit and sophistication.

They are qualities practically synonymous with playwright Philip Barry, who wrote delicately nuanced comedies about the American class system during the 1920s and '30s.

The foibles of the very wealthy--usually examined through the eyes of an outsider--were the central concern in Barry's plays, "The Philadelphia Story" being his most enduring work.

His lesser-known "Holiday," written a decade earlier in 1927, may not be as flawlessly crafted, but its hilariously accurate observations nail the ruling class at the peak of their smug opulence: before the Depression-bred self-consciousness about material possessions brought the eroding confidence we find in "The Philadelphia Story's" purebreds.

The lure of "Holiday's" obscurity and its challenging demand for precision period staging proved irresistible to Darryl Hickman, an established actor and drama instructor. Hickman selected the play as the debut production for a new, Santa Barbara-based theater troupe composed of actors from his training classes.

Hickman named the oddly acronymed T.H.E.C.L. Theater Company after what he claims are the essential ingredients of every good performance: truth, humor, energy, clarity and love.

Those elements are clearly evident in Michelle Whitson's stellar portrayal of Linda Seton, "Holiday's" remarkably self-aware heroine who rejects the conventional expectations of her aristocratic station in life, as well as the "god of money" to whom her fabulously rich family has sacrificed its soul.

Unfortunately, the path of her honest feelings leads straight to Johnny Case (Jeff Post)--her sister's fiance. In the throes of Linda's resulting inner conflict, Whitson shows us the qualities Barry found admirable in the upper class: namely honor, sensitivity and tact.

True to the playwright's intent, the passions and turmoil raging beneath the perfectly timed elegant banter are perfectly clear in Whitson's portrayal without being overstated. The essence of this complex character is completely natural and engaging.

Whitson seems to have stepped directly out of Barry's era. And while her performance is the production's centerpiece, she's buoyed admirably by Graeme McKenna as Linda's alcoholic brother Ned--an initially stereotypical, charming drunk.

Ned is ultimately rendered poignant and believable when Barry takes the time to explain the choices Ned has made--and the reasons for them--in a magnificent scene where he and Linda bare their souls on New Year's Eve.

Also noteworthy are Care Felix and Tony Griffin as Linda's fun-loving friends, who embody an innocuous good cheer and healthy approach to enjoying good fortune. Laurie Cantwell brings an appropriately breezy self-centeredness to Linda's superficial sister, Julia.

The production is not without its problems, however, primarily because of casting. That was probably inevitable, however, given the company's charter to use director Hickman's students rather than actors chosen from open auditions.

Glaringly miscast is Jeff Post as Johnny Case, the object of Linda's affections and who faces a quandary of his own. Johnny, a lawyer who raised himself up from poverty, has only just discovered that Julia, the nice girl he has courted, is so wealthy--and has all the upper-class expectations for his career that would shackle him to a way of life he's not sure he wants.

Johnny is in many ways a stand-in for Barry, who himself married into money. Regrettably, there's no believable struggle by this Johnny to discover where he fits in.

Gwil Richards also proves unconvincing as the family's omnipotent, meddling patriarch.

Production values, though, are consistently impressive, and are topped by a creamy, elegant set design by Russell Pyle that exudes class. Even when this "Holiday" falls short on performance, it's worth looking at.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Holiday," performed through Sept. 12 at the Paseo Nuevo Center Stage Theater in Santa Barbara, Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $12.50. For reservations or information, call 963-0408.

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