The Bliss family loves to play games. Whether it’s with words, each other or a house full of guests does not matter. It’s the game that counts as actress Judith Bliss, author David Bliss and their nearly grown children — Sorel and Simon — entertain four unsuspecting guests at their home in the English countryside.
Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever” is a comedy of manners set in the mid-1920s that borders on farce without all the slamming doors used by modern English playwrights such as Alan Ayckbourn. Bagaduce Theatre’s production, which launches its fourth season at the Fowler Farm, perfectly captures all the family lunacy and the unsuspecting guests’ reactions to it.
Director Patricia Conolly precisely paces Coward’s work, first performed in 1925. She carefully winds the action into a frenzy that hysterically culminates in the second act, and leaves theatergoers laughing long and hard at the Bliss family’s gamesmanship.
Monique Fowler is wonderful as matriarch Judith Bliss. Constantly on stage, the aging actress cajols her children, flatters a much younger admirer and argues about the geography of Paris with her husband. Fowler delightfully captures all of the woman’s eccentricities and charms the audience the way she does most in her orbit.
On stage much less than Fowler, Burke’s David is a fine foil for Judith. The actors’ nearly constant bickering makes Judith and David sound like any long-married couple whose passion for each other has been replaced by irritation. They are a perfect match in Coward’s country home.
Gaines Semler and Lauren Elwood as Simon and Sorel Bliss capture Coward’s vision of the pair as the indulged children of eccentrics seeking some sort of normalcy and romance. Semler and Elwood flawlessly portray the closeness of siblings united against a common enemy — their parents — who occasionally let their sibling rivalry bubble to the surface.
Guests Sandy Tyrell (Andy Donnelly), Myra Arundel (Simone Stadler), Richard Greatham (Daryll Heysham) and Jackie Coryton (Ella Smith) are equally fine as the guests. Each invited by a different family member, the characters are confused, bemused and confounded by the Blisses, and form a tight ensemble within the cast.
Sally Mills, an attorney in Ellsworth, nearly steals the show from the professionals as Clara, Judith’s longtime dresser turned family maid. Her disdain for and tolerance of the antics of the Bliss family let her bond with theatergoers. Her rendition of “Tea for Two,” sung while setting the breakfast table during a scene change, earned a well-deserved round of applause from Sunday’s audience.
Another delightful aspect of this production are the costumes and wigs. Fowler’s choices capture the whimsical style of the mid-1920s in the beautiful dresses worn by the women in the cast. The characters appear to be clothed in gossamer that clings and moves to the music of the Jazz Age. From Myra’s blunt cut to Jackie’s tightly wound curls to Judith’s reddish-orange mop, the wigs define not only the characters, but also firmly anchor “Hay Fever” in the 1920s.
Bagaduce Theatre deserves accolades for producing Coward’s work, which, except for “Private Lives,” is rarely performed these days. In 1969 for a profile on his 70th birthday, Time magazine described Coward as a man with “a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise.” That could be said of every character in “Hay Fever,” which is what makes Bagaduce Theatre’s production so perfectly charming and blissful.
Fowler Farm, a 150-acre coastal property on the Bagaduce River where shows are performed in a former barn, is a unique and stunningly beautiful setting for a summer theater company. The property, located at the end of a one-lane road, was first owned by a man named Andrew Webber. Rear Adm. J.W. Fowler, actress Fowler’s grandfather, purchased what was known as the Mills Point Farm in 1972.
“Hay Fever” will be performed through July 7 at Bagaduce Theatre on the Fowler Farm in Brooksville. For more information, call 207-801-1536 or visit bagaducetheatre.com.