Philip Barry’s comedy “Holiday” features a vivacious young woman who resists her wealthy family’s unimaginative expectations. The 1938 film version was a star vehicle for Katharine Hepburn, and in the Wellesley Summer Theatre Company’s current production, Angela Bilkic lights up the stage every time she appears.
Bilkic is part of a strong trio that includes Lewis Wheeler as a sincere suitor and Marge Dunn as the object of his affection, but this production has some dead spots, partly a result of staging that creates too much distance between characters, and partly a result of the play’s age.
Barry, best known for “The Philadelphia Story,” delights in a comic style that sends up traditions, particularly those of wealth and privilege. But in 1928, when “Holiday” was written, the three-act, two-intermission format was the norm, while here, it seems to slow the action to a crawl.
The story takes place over the holidays in the home of the wealthy Seton family, whose motto is “money is our God.” Johnny Case (Wheeler) has come to meet the family of his beloved Julia (Dunn), whom he met just 10 days ago and plans to marry quickly. Despite his initial protests, patriarch Edward Seton (John Davin) is won over by Johnny’s prospects: not only is he an up-and-coming lawyer, his shrewd investments generate a significant profit.
But there’s a catch: Johnny has made it clear to Julia that if his investments pay off, he is determined to retire young, enjoy life, and work when he’s old. Although he explains he has been earning money since he was 10, Johnny hasn’t acquired the reverence for riches that defines the Seton family. His declaration that he doesn’t want more money than he needs to live grates on the tradition-bound Edward Seton and daughter Julia.
Julia’s siblings, Linda (Bilkic) and Ned (Will Keary) are the non-conforming offspring who struggle against the tidal pull of money. Linda is determined to make a life for herself on her own terms, while her brother has given up and finds solace in an alcoholic haze. In Act 2, Linda holds a New Year’s Eve party in her childhood play room with only a few select guests. When she and Johnny find themselves attracted to each other because of their mutual interest in the simple things in life, they both struggle with their loyalty to Julia.
Barry’s comedy of manners occasionally sparkles with witty dialogue, particularly from Linda, but it’s not enough to buoy the entire play. Director Nora Hussey drives her company swiftly through the first act, but the second act drags when it should provide the essential dramatic twist. Some members of the ensemble often seem stiff and uncomfortable in their roles, which also makes it difficult for the audience to sympathize with them.
“Holiday” has some pleasant moments, particularly when Bilkic, Wheeler, and Dunn engage in witty repartee, but we never get to know these characters enough to care about what happens to them in the end.