When Mary Jane Hansen first started working with the New York State Theater Institute as an intern while she was a student at Russell Sage College, she wasn’t completely comfortable.
She was young and unsure of herself, she said. In fact, that was one reason she liked acting: She could slip into the skin of another person.
It’s always clicked with me, she said. `I felt I could offer more in this way.`
As Hansen got older, though, she grew more self-assured and found she had a lot to offer, too. She was drawn to her charcter of Tracy Lord in NYSTI’s ucoming production of `The Philadelphia Story` because she embarks on a similar journey of self-discovery.
`She’s a real human being,` Hansen said. `She has her awkward moments.`
Those awkward moments center around her lovelife. In `The Philadelphia Story,` which debuts at NYSTI on Friday, April 25, and runs through Sunday, May 3, Lord is about to be married in 1930s Philadelphia. Complicating matters are her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, and Macaulay (Mike) Connor, a reporter assigned to cover the wedding for the society page.
The script didn’t exactly resonate with Hansen when she first read it.
`I thought, we’re going to do a play about rich people, isn’t that cute,` she said sarcastically.
But the script was deeper than she realized. As Lord struggles with her competing love interests, she finds an inner strength.
`It shows we all have the opportunity to shine and show our character,` Hansen said.
While all the male attention weighs on Lord, her younger sister, Dinah, delights in it. She gets word that Tracy may have had an affair and joyously spreads the hearsay.
`She’s the one with all the gossip,` said Eleah Jayne Peal, a sophomore at Columbia High School who plays Dinah. `She’s spunky. She certainly isn’t shy, which kind of sounds like me.`
Peal’s outgoing nature brought her to NYSTI when she was just 5. A kid with a self-described `huge imagination,` she asked her mom and dad if she could attend NYSTI camps and programs, and they embraced the idea.
`I just absolutely adore theater, and my parents always encourage anything I’m passionate about,` she said.
While acting has always come naturally to her, this role presented a new challenge. `The Philadelphia Story` was a well-known movie starring Katherine Hepburn as Tracy Lord, Cary Grant as C.K. Dexter Haven and Jimmy Stewart as Connor. Peal wanted to see the movie, but at the same time, she wasn’t sure that was a good idea.
`I was struggling with it,` she said. `I wanted to develop the character in my own fashion.`
She did eventually sit down and watch the movie, just as a point of reference. When she’s on stage, she draws not on the movie, but on those around her, she said.
`A big part of my character is reacting to how my co-stars react,` she said.
Hansen noticed when she watched the film for the first time that Hepburn had her own commanding take on the character.
`The role seemed written for Katherine Hepburn,` Hansen said. `I saw a very confident woman. It was as if she was saying, ‘ This is mine. I own it.’`
Hepburn wound up earning an Academy Award nomination for her role, and Stewart took home the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Connor.
Connor is played in NYSTI’s version by David Girard, and Lord’s other love interest, ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven, is played by Jason Marr. A Queens resident, Marr previously appeared in NYSTI’s `Arsenic and Old Lace,` and contacted his agent about having him play a part in `The Philadelphia Story.`
Marr is a long-time fan of the movie, as well as the time in which it’s set.
`It’s one of my favorite time periods,` he said. `I have always sort of thought ` and people have told me ` that I was born in the wrong generation. My sensibility is of the period.`
He likes Shakespeare and the classics, he explained. He’s tall and slender, which was the common look of the 1930s. He loves language and he’s always liked old fashions.
`The clothes, I think, were just very elegant.`
Beyond all of that, Marr is excited about `The Philadelphia Story` because he has a chance to play a very understated character.
`He’s a smooth operator,` Marr said. `You can sort of ride that and not do anything ` just let the words do it.`
Rising to the challenge, though, means trying to convey with looks and body language more of Haven’s character, he said.
Like other plays of the era, `The Philadelphia Story` is very well-written, Marr said, and `I find that to be very satisfying.`
Hansen thinks audiences will be satisfied, too.
`They should definitely expect to sit back and have a good time,` she said. `It’s charming.`
`It’s a good show if you want to see someone’s life get extremely tangled and be glad it’s not you,` Peal added.
`The Philadelphia Story` will preview at the New York State Theatre Institute for a school audience on Friday, April 24, at 10 a.m. and for the public on Saturday, April 25, at 8 p.m. It runs until Sunday, May 3, at the Schacht Fine Arts Center, 5 Division St., on the campus of Russell Sage College in Troy. Tickets are $20 for adults, $16 for senior citizens and students and $10 for children 12 and younger and can be purchased by calling the box office at 274-3256 or visiting www.nysti.org.“