Not too long ago, I asked a colleague why exactly it was the trend for every recently-lauded play to boil down to watching a family self-destruct on stage. He replied, “Recent plays? Like Oedipus?”, and I was forced to cede the point. Ever since there has been family, there has been family drama. And since the dawn of theatre, that family drama has made it to the stage. It is no surprise that Noel Coward took that concept and sent it up, staging a theatrical family bringing the theatre into their family drama, complete with audience. It is absolutely no surprise that director Tom Mitchell knew the Celebration Company, nearly family themselves, would take to it so successfully.
Well, I say “nearly family”, but in fact, this production seems to be cast almost according to the company’s lineage. Kenna Mae Reiss and Nic Morse are the Bliss family children, as well as Celebration’s newest-comers. Theatrical matriarch Judith and nearly-absent father David are portrayed by Company board members Joi Hoffsummer and Gary Ambler, who have worked together long enough to develop such a natural chemistry that anyone would believe they were truly married. Another veteran and board member, Kay Bohannon Holley, plays Clara, the family’s worn-in housekeeper who was originally Judith’s “dresser”, her long service providing her with the ability to enjoy the insanity on display (it’s up to you to decide whether I mean within or without the play, or both).
During the first scene, where all four members of the family ask Clara to clear “the Japan Room” for the four different guests that each member has invited to stay the weekend, the audience is perhaps prepared for a comedy of errors facilitated by a lack of communication. If only. But no, the barrage of words spilling out of each character’s mouth is barely stilled by the audience’s abundant laughter. It is definitely a comedy, but communication is far from lacking. Furthermore, the only errors so far are an understocked pantry and a serving girl whose toothache provides Clara with the best-delivered line of the entire play.
Again I say “best delivered line”, but in fact, the guests provide a wealth of physical comedy and facial reactions that contribute just as many, if not more laughs as the dialogue. Each guest is invited by a Bliss for two reasons: both to be audience, feeding the family’s drama, as well as to provide an opportunity for the inviter to upstage another family member. That being said, it is clear that Coward wrote each guest to give the theatre audience a little relief from the intensity of the Blisses. To be just as certain, each character was cast well and portrayed with skill, and provides a welcome place to turn when all of the shouting gets to be just too much to enjoy on its own.
Although each guest has a scene or two of dialogue to move the drama forward, the meat of each performance is physical to balance the verbal torrents provided by each Bliss. The boxer Sandy Tyrell (Warren Garver) displays a series of half-winks, sly smiles and eyebrow raises that perfectly punctuates his opinions of both Bliss women. Eric Beckley’s improv roots are betrayed by his adept participation in a parlor game which requires him to “saucily” light a cigarette, something at which I wouldn’t necessarily expect Richard Greatham, diplomat, to excel. The rival actress Myra Arundel (Malia Andrus) is regally haughty and brazenly vampy by turn. And with perhaps the fewest lines in the play, clueless flapper Jackie’s vapid expressions are so expertly displayed by Cara Maurizi that I actually had to stop myself from looking at her so I wouldn’t laugh over dialogue.
Throughout the first half of Act I, there is a dramatic do-si-do of partner swapping, pairing off almost every possible combination of characters. This allows Morse (as Simon) the breathing room to be effusive in an attempt to charm his audience, and he makes it work much better on the paying one than it does on the playing one. Sorel’s (Reiss) petulant histrionics turn on a dime back to pragmatic asides delivered to help both audiences understand what’s going on, and she is equally believable at both extremes. Once the entire party appears together in Act II, the ensemble plays off each other delightfully, balancing the verbal with the physical and the intensity with relief. The lights go down as theatre’s audience departs with the guests at the end of Act III, and my advice is to watch Richard as they go.
To accompany the accomplished acting, each cast member moved through a well-dressed set in gorgeous period clothing, no small feat for three changes each per nine players. Costume designer Sheri Doyle commented that with so many jazz-era productions recently, there were plenty of options to refit or modify, although two dresses were original to this production. My personal favorite was Myra’s orange traveling dress, complete with pheasant-feather adorned hat. The music that led us in and out of each act was so appropriate that it led an audience member to audibly reminisce about the time period, possibly the highest compliment that could be given.
As Carly noted in her preview, it’s time to wring the life out of the last few days of summer, so spend them laughing and see Hay Fever at the Station Theatre at some point in the next two weeks. Shows are at 8 p.m. tonight, August 5th–Sunday, August 9th, as well as August 12-15. To reserve a ticket, call 217-384-4000, or place a reservation online.Photos by Scott Wells.