‘Hay Fever’ charms with wry wit

Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever” is a delightful production by The Gate Theatre, which is no stranger to the Spoleto Festival USA.

Review BY RODNEY LEE ROGERS Special to The Post and Courier

Much is made of the power of theater to enlighten. In The Gate Theatre’s production of Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever,” we are reminded of its power to delight.

The play could appear to be mere confection, but its beauty lies as much in its structure as Coward’s wit. The production, directed by Gate regular Patrick Mason, finds all the right nuances and is as enjoyable a night of theater as one can experience.

The Gate is no stranger to Spoleto audiences, and spectators will enjoy seeing familiar faces in different roles. Many will revel in the brilliance of the physical comedy, in which the simple act of sitting can put the audience in a titter.

The real strength of the company, however, lies in what in sport you would call the fundamentals. Each cast member is grounded fully in the inner life of his character.

This type of commitment is on firm display at the end of the first act, when the entire cast sits before the audience staring out. The eye doesn’t know where to land, but as it moves across the faces of family members and their guests on stage, you can see the kernel of each character in front of you.

This type of commitment pays off. The comic bits charm and create sheer pleasure in an audience.

“Hay Fever” was written in 1927 and chronicles the high jinks that ensue in the Blisses’ house in Cookham over a weekend when each has invited a guest unwanted by the rest of the family.

In a house full of artists, we learn quickly that each guest is an unsuspecting player in the family drama. The matriarch, Judith Bliss (Ingrid Craigie), has the unfair advantage, having recently retired, yet again, from the stage.

Not to be outdone, her children, Sorel (Rebecca O’Mara) and Simon (Tadhg Murphy), plot there own directorial take over, while their father (Stephen Brennan) works away on his novel out of sight.

Bored with creations that won’t play back and family members who won’t be directed, the guests are brought in to heighten the drama. This creation of drama out of the tediousness of life highlights the longing within the characters in such a way that gives depth to Coward’s work. The family’s sheer will to try to control the hopeless drama is what brings the laughs.

The audience is met with a curtain of a Diego Rivera-like painting of a woman in red, with either a come-hither or a you-bore-me-to-death countenance, depending on your interpretation. It is an excellent device to set time and mood.

The cast is superb and each actor plays off the other in unexpected and skillful ways. What’s always rewarding about The Gate’s performances is the ensemble spirit and fullness of each production. As one of the characters from “Hay Fever” remarks, “You just fell victim to the atmosphere.”