‘Becoming first-class human beings’

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Photos by Michelle Kanaar.

Jessie Cadle | Staff Writer

Carolyn Holding is about to have her brown hair dyed a deep auburn.

She is understandably nervous, but willing to take the plunge to further immerse herself in her character, Tracy Lord, the leading lady affectionately known as “Red” throughout The Philadelphia Story.

“It’s a really well-written play. It’s funny and sweet,” Holding said. “Everyone in it is so honest, which is just a wonderful thing. The main goal of everyone is to be a human being. That’s just beautiful.”

Chautauqua Theater Company’s The Philadelphia Story previews at 8 p.m. tonight in Bratton Theater and officially opens at 6 p.m. tomorrow. It runs through July 8.

Philip Barry’s 1939 play follows Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord in the 24 hours before her marriage to George Kittredge. It’s Lord’s second marriage, but when her first husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, returns with tabloid journalist Mike Connor, relationships change and swap as the wedding day looms.

The movie adaptation stars Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart as the three leads. In CTC’s production, directed by Associate Artistic Director Andrew Borba, the three leads are conservatory actors Holding, Dave Quay and Max Roll. The show also features three returning guest artists: Carol Halstead, Peter Francis James and John Seidman.

Carolyn Holding — Tracy Lord

Holding did all she could to stay away from theater at Harvard University during her undergraduate years, but she still found herself starring in a play her first semester. By the time she graduated, with a degree in history and literature of France and America, theater had once again become “her thing.”

Holding has just completed her second year at New York University’s graduate acting program. Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch and Borba cast Holding as Lord before she arrived at Chautauqua, and now she is taking on the iconic role originally written for Katharine Hepburn.

“You can’t do an imitation. That’s going to destroy you,” Holding said. “When you’re in a play and you’re playing a character who has certain wants and ways of getting what they want, that’s what you’re doing. The idea of anyone else sort of falls away.”

Her biggest struggle with the character has been not falling into Hepburn’s signature cadence, as the part was written in Hepburn’s natural speech pattern. But the benefit of the role is Barry’s brilliant writing.

“The play is so tight, and you feel sort of held by it … there are so few plays now that have that perfect balance between heart and humor,” she said. “And they’re so witty. I’ve always wanted to be able to talk like that and think that fast. And I don’t, but it’s great to be able to play someone that does.”

Dave Quay — C.K. Dexter Haven

Chautauquans may recognize Quay. He was a conservatory actor last year who played Ferapont in Three Sisters and Biron in Love’s Labour’s Lost.

He just couldn’t stay away from the place that allows him, a New Hampshire native who attends NYU’s acting graduate program with Holding, to reconnect with nature.

“It’s nice to see the stars. And I can smell the trees,” he said. “Also, this company is really special … because the company is the priority here, the group of people.”

At his first audition, he had a terrible cold and could barely speak. Ironically, it allowed him to have more of a real dialogue with Benesch and Borba. He credits the imperfectness of his audition for landing him the job.

“That’s kind of the spirit of this place. It’s not about doing some ideal perfect thing, it’s about doing what’s of the people in the room,” he said.

His latest character Haven is an embodiment of mankind’s imperfections. He has just recovered from a history of alcoholism and abuse. His classic line in the show is directed at Lord: “You’ll never be a first-class human being … until you have learned to have some regard for human frailty.”

Quay translated what the line means.

“It’s our imperfections and the ways in which we’re not infallible that our humanity is made of,” he said. “And I believe that, too. It’s exciting to play a character who is discovering that and trying to become a better person.”

Max Roll — Mike Connor

Though it’s impossible to tell as he runs his scenes, Roll normally has a distinct English accent that comes from his childhood in London. But as he demonstrates in the play, he has almost perfected his American accent after seven or eight years in the U.S. and several years of voice coaching.

A son of two musicians, Roll was a musician for the first 24 years of his life until he stumbled into theater and became addicted. He first attended Queens College for theater, and is now entering his third year of graduate studies in the Yale School of Drama.

“Just to trigger some visceral emotional response in somebody is a very rewarding thing,” he said, “and to get to do it by dressing up and pretending to be all kinds of weird and wacky people — that’s pretty amazing.”

Roll portrays Connor — originally played by Stewart — a tabloid journalist who has a distinct perspective on the world. But as the play progresses, so do his beliefs.

“Mike is somewhat of a poetic revolutionary,” Roll said. “What draws me to him is the fact that he ultimately seems willing to set aside his prejudices in favor of the truth when it’s presented to him, which I think is very rare … in human beings.”

That clarity makes the play distinct, because most people are unwilling to set aside their perspectives in favor of others’ views, he said. Each of the play’s characters experiences a similar shift in point of view.

Roll repeated a message Borba told the actors on the first day.

“Andrew said … ‘Everybody in this play is striving to be a first-class human being,’ which is something I think we do very little of today,” Roll said. “But I think that’s the joy of the play. It could easily be seen as this outdated, fluffy, almost period comedy, but it’s actually extremely relevant.”