A family affair
by Michael Dresdner
|L to R: Judith Bliss (Jane McKittrick), Simon Bliss (Rodman Bolek) All photos by Dennis K Photography|
Noel Coward’s 1924 comedy Hay Fever opened last night at Tacoma Little Theatre, deftly directed by Rick Hornor and starring an outstanding ensemble cast. Quick paced and erudite, its language is riddled with comic comments and observations that spin by so quickly you’d need to watch it several times to get it all. In spite of being almost 100 years old, this study of family, ethos, and actions holds up quite nicely, thank you very much, thanks in large part to a frightfully skilled cast.
|L to R: Simon (Rodman Bolek), Judith (Jane McKittrick), Sorel (Deya Ozburn)|
While a synopsis of the play may sound like a mix of Midsummer Night’s Dream and a foreshadow of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, it’s actually a subtly crafted reveal of a surprisingly close family who cherish one another more than anyone else. Even while arguing, they clearly care deeply for one another. By contrast, even while seducing their guests they have little real use for them.
Such complex interrelationships are not easy to convey, but this cast manages to blend the intricate layers of their characters with one another flawlessly. It’s like watching gears mesh perfectly.
It’s time to meet the Bliss family in their elegant country house.
The father, David Bliss (John W. Olive) is a writer who spends much of his time, and much of the play, hidden away in his study. He emerges mostly to complain, seduce, or to employ his family as a sounding board for his latest writing efforts. Judith Bliss (Jane McKittrick) is his wife, and the real force majeure of the family, commanding both the household and the stage whenever she appears. She’s a former actress who still seeks the adoration of her fans, a counterbalance to the eye-rolling she suffers from her children.
|L to R: Sorel (Deya Ozburn), Simon (Rodman Bolek)|
Her son, Simon (Rodman Bolek) is breezy, artistic, headstrong, energetic, and light-hearted. He fairly reeks of the airiness that comes from one raised in privilege. Daughter Sorel (Deya Ozburn) shares much of her brother’s freewheeling nature and stubborn streak, but also has a bit of neediness borne of a twinge of self-doubt. She’s much more like her mother than she probably cares to admit.
Finally, there is Clara (Adrianna Littlejohn Roland,) the sassy, barely capable housekeeper/maid who is kept on because she was Judith’s dresser back in her theatre days.
|L to R: Jackie Coryton (Jill Heinecke), Richard Greatham (W. Scott Pinkston)|
Unbeknownst to one another, each family member has invited a guest of the opposite gender for the weekend, each apparently a potential tryst. David opts for Jackie Coryton (Jill Heinecke,) a young woman who admires his writing, and seems confused from the outset at getting such an invitation. Judith invites Sandy Tyrell (Frank Roberts), a too young, but very star struck devotee of the actress’s onstage work. For Simon it’s Myra Arundel (Devan Malone,) an elegant family acquaintance who has her own agenda in mind. Sorel chooses Richard Greatham (W. Scott Pinkston,) a dignified and reserved older diplomat who actually fancies Judith more than her daughter.
|L to R: Sandy Tyrell (Frank Roberts), Judith (Jane McKittrick)|
The family soon engages the guests in a game of adverbs and acting that is clear and fun to them, but leaves their guests feeling befuddled and awkward. No matter; in short order they all pair off, but each guest is whisked away to be wooed by a different family member than the one who invited them. By morning the guests are all so rattled that they decide to sneak away back to London, which they manage while the family is in the living room arguing senselessly about street names in Paris. The family barely notices their disappearance, and frankly cares less.
|L to R: Judith (Jane McKittrick), Sorel (Deya Ozburn)|
The final tableau of the family together in the living room sums it up sweetly; these are folks who love and depend on one another more than the outside world.
Though some see the play as a slanted view of English insouciance, it may hit closer to home. Coward wrote it in just three days shortly after returning from a trip to America where he was a house guest of Laurette Taylor and Hartley Manners. Thus, it may well be less of a commentary on British mores than a Brit’s-eye view of American self-indulgent flippancy in the Roaring Twenties.
And the name? You know how city folk might suffer atypical sneezing and itching in the pollen-laden country air? Perhaps it's a nod to the unwitting Bliss guests who are, quite unintentionally, made to feel uncomfortable during their country visit.
Though the plot is fairly thin, pulling off these complex relationships is a Herculean effort, a real challenge even for very good actors, housed in a play that requires a genuinely tight ensemble. Fortunately, that’s just what we have. I could call out each one individually for accolades, but to be honest, there wasn’t a weakness in any of them. This is an excellent chance to watch a finely integrated group of very talented people crafting a slice of life offering.
As usual for TLT, it’s all backed by an excellent support crew. Blake York, who also did sound design, created the elegant country home set, lushly painted by scenic artist Jen York. An outstanding array of period costumes comes from Michele Graves, while props, hair, and wigs are thanks to Jeffery Weaver. Lighting is by Niclas Olson, and the action is herded by stage manager Nena Curley, assisted by ASM Courtney Rainer.
This is a wonderful play that admittedly presents challenges not only to the cast and crew, but to the audience as well. Nuanced, complex, funny, and revealing, it requires close attention, but is well worth your time and effort.
I am married to one of the cast members.
This is my last review. As it is the end of TLT’s 100th season (and Lakewood’s 80th) I am hanging up my pencil. Thanks for taking this journey with me.
June 7 to 23, 2019
Tacoma Little Theatre