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BWW Review: Ah-choo! Theatre Memphis Gets HAY FEVER

While watching Theatre Memphis' production of Noel Coward's HAY FEVER, I was reminded of a family of self-centered con artists in the classic 1938 David O. Selznick film, THE YOUNG IN HEART. In that charming comedy-drama, Roland Young and Billie Burke, abetted by offspring Janet Gaynor and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., set out to swindle a sweet little old lady; however, the kindness and affection of the intended victim eventually melts their collective heart and changes their nature for the better. Alas, the four members of the "Bliss" family have no such old lady to rid them of their egocentric ways; at the end of HAY FEVER, they are as self-centered -- and charming, to the audience's delight -- as they are when the play begins.

As Act I opens, we learn that each member of the household has, to the consternation of the others, invited a guest of the opposite sex for the weekend; and the main tempest in this teapot seems to be who will sleep in the coveted Japanese room. As the guests arrive and are rudely ignored or mistreated by the disapproving hosts/hostesses, Coward cleverly upsets the tea cart in Act II, as each of the family members pairs off with an unexpected partner. All of this takes place in a lavishly furnished country house outside 1925 London, and it is enhanced by Daniel Kopera's typically "true-to-the-period" set design (all blue and coral and white, with landscapes and portraits and gently waving leaves of willow outside a magnificent circular window) and snatches of songs from the likes of Youmans, Kern, and Gershwin.

The stunning cast seems to relish a chance to flaunt their theatricality. We initially meet daughter "Sorel" (Lena Wallace Black), who has invited a "square-pegged" Richard Greatham" (left-footed, pratfalling Evan McCarley), and her artist/brother "Simon" (played Bohemian-style by Gabe Beutel-Gunn), who has designs on Louise Brooks-like "Myra Arundel" (Melissa Walker, looking smashing in reds, courtesy of Costume Designer Amie Eoff). While they bicker, they are interrupted by their actress/mother "Judith" (a glorious comic turn by Christina Wellford Scott, channeling bits and pieces from her more familiar dramatic repertoire, including "Eleanor of Acquitaine" and "Mary Tyrone"), who would like to go several horizontal rounds with her strapping intended, boxer "Sandy Tyrell" (Kinon Keplinger, literally "unzipped" at one moment in the play). Upstairs is the largely ignored father "David" (Greg Fletcher), who can't seem to finish his latest novel and has invited a guest of his own, admiring "Jackie Coryton" (a squeamish and occasionally squealing Danielle Carr). All of these characters fall under the household care of sensible and seen-it-all-before maid "Clara" (whose plain attire stands in stark contrast to that of her "betters").

Theatre Memphis usually manages in a season to trot out at least one sophisticated period comedy like this (a recent, triumphant THE PHILADELPHIA STORY comes to mind). There's an audience for this kind of play and this kind of world -- as strange and foreign to most audience members as Oz was to Dorothy. It's a world of clattering teacups and bored socialites (though Coward based this play on an actual weekend he spent with legendary Broadway actress Laurette Taylor and her family), who speak lines that would never be uttered in the conversation of most people (and that is, perhaps, a pity) -- stylized, polysyllabic, and artificial in the extreme. No one accomplished this kind of dialogue better than Noel Coward, though I wonder whether in fifty years there will still be an audience for this kind of play. I think, perhaps, there will be, as frequent laughter accompanied so many delicious scenes -- the inventive parlor game, in which particpants have to guess an adverb from someone's behavior; various seduction scenes (a highlight is Judith's toying with a woefully unprepared Mr. Greatham); and so forth. The casting is, as heretofore mentioned, perfect (though I wondered how the role of "Clara" might have been with a cross-dressing Ken Zimmerman in the part, though Martha Graber is, of course, excellent, shuffling along in her plain, sensible shoes). Skillfully directed by Jerry Chipman, HAY FEVER runs through May 15. Photo courtesy of Theatre Memphis.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)