Hay Fever

Utah Shakespeare Festival

June 2002

Mary Dolson Kildare, Brian Vaughn

“Think of the most awkward gaffe you ever committed—your worst faux pas.  If you remember the resulting scalding blush, you begin to sympathize with the hapless weekend guests of the Bliss family in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever.

“The play makes comic hay of those awkward social moments, with feverish laughter as the result.  After all, this time it isn’t you.

“The laughter this production engenders isn’t grounded in the dialogue, though the script is filled with snappy lines.  Nor is the plot the thing – this is no complicated, ditzy farce.  The chuckles begin in all-too-familiar depictions of embarrassing situations, and grow into belly laughter as the ensuing complications become impossibly outlandish.

“Anyone who ever had trouble sustaining a conversation with a stranger, felt like an unwelcome intruder, endured an annoying parlor game or suffered misinterpretation of a romantic gesture can relate to the trials the guests in the Bliss household suffer.  But we can all take heart, and that is part of the charm of Hay Fever.  None of us was ever quite as mortified as are these innocents at the heedless hands of the Blisses.

“Director Paul Barnes has a light and clever touch in creating the subtle ambiance of Coward’s style, and his ensemble cast plays off each other with fine precision.”

    Celia R. Baker

    Salt Lake Tribune

“Bliss is the name—and bliss is the game—as an irresistible epidemic of Hay Fever sweeps the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

“Noel Coward’s sparkling champagne cocktail of a comedy, set in the ‘20’s, shimmers with wit and bubbles over with fun, sparking grins, giggles, and guffaws with equal ease.

“The source of the ever-present mirth: the defiantly eccentric Bliss family, who share a British country home that’s almost as scattered as they are.

“No one would ever mistake Hay Fever for a comedy of consequence. But there’s an art to spinning such gossamer fluff—and its far more difficult than it looks.  A bit of slack timing here, a heavy-handed sight gag there, and the entire enterprise could collapse like a flat soufflé.

“Happily, director Paul Barnes and his sterling ensemble keep the wisecracks snapping, the sight gags crackling and the laughs flowing in energetic, undeniably high style.

“In one of his most poignant songs, “If Love Were All,” Coward writes wistfully (and a bit dismissively) of a ‘talent to amuse.’  In this sorry age, however, it’s a precious and most welcome commodity—and Hay Fever provides a thoroughly delightful occasion to celebrate that gift.”

    Carol Cling

    Las Vegas Review-Journal

“The Festival production of Hay Fever, a cool, witty Noel Coward parody of elite British 20’s society, is as effervescent as champagne.  Coward’s featherweight story involves a weekend with the wildly eccentric Bliss family.  

“It would be easy for this insubstantial soufflé to fall flat, but the Festival’s version, thanks to a skillful cast and adept handling by director Paul Barnes, is snappy and energetic.  Sight gags abound, the best being a mystery breakfast dish that thrills the family and appalls the guests.

“The tempo is brisk, the wisecracks fast and funny, the spirit high energy and diverting.  Hay Fever is a big dose of infectious fun, well worth catching.”

    Linda Midgley



What I learned. . .

Hay Fever has been a part of my life since college.  A group of friends from summer stock days used to gather once every spring to read the play out loud.  It never failed to make us laugh – long, loud, and hard – and when Tom Moore directed the play at William Ball’s renowned American Conservatory Theatre featuring San Francisco’s beloved Marian Walters as Judith Bliss and which was revived season after season, we were there, front and center as often as possible.  

I first directed the play when I was a student teacher in Orange, California; my next production was also with high school students, this time at Lincoln High School in Stockton, California.  Certainly the fact that there were five roles for women, one set, and relatively simple costumes, had its appeal.  But it was also a great vehicle for introducing young actors to comic style and a play that depends on verbal wit for its success.  Truthfully, though, I think it is because the play makes me laugh so much that I have always been eager to work on it.  

The Utah production was my first professional outing with the play.  I leapt at the opportunity to direct it, choosing it over other assignments that Cam Harvey and Doug Cook, two of the Festival’s Producing Directors, discussed with me, and was delighted when Kathleen Conlin, USF’s Casting Director, told me that Leslie Brott had accepted the offer to play Judith Bliss.  Leslie is a comic genius and a good friend; I knew we’d be golden with her playing the matriarch of the vivid, spoiled, self-absorbed, eccentric Bliss clan.  The rest of the cast: Jonathan Gillard Daly (David), Carrie Baker (Clara), Mary Dolson Kildare (Sorel), Matt Schwader (Simon), Michael Kieran Connolly (Richard), Brian Vaughn (Sandy), Kelly Lamont (Jackie), and Annie Newhall (Myra), were icing on the ensemble cake.

Tom Umfrid and I reunited as set designer and director for this production; our first collaboration was also at USF when we worked together on a production of Moliere’s Tartuffe.  Tom is a bold, resourceful, and imaginative designer; his set for the Bliss’s country home was as theatrical and eclectic as the family – and a properties director/set decorator’s dream.  Sadly, one of my favorite elements of Tom’s design got sacrificed to conventionality: a large vertical wooden pillar that Tom and I both felt would reflect the taste and non-conformity of the family if it was painted blue, eventually was painted a less obtrusive oak.  When you’re a guest director you often need to play by your host’s ground rules, which can lead to compromises you yourself might not make if you were completely in charge. Ultimately, you learn to pick your artistic battles carefully.  In this case, the color of a vertical pillar was not a petard on which I wanted to fall.   

I also think we erred in our basic floor plan.  Coward’s plays are all about entrances, Hay Fever as much as any.  Tom provided dramatic staircases and landings on which the family could descend and pose, along with the essential doors to the terrace through which Richard Greatham must make a key entrance at the climactic moment of Act II.  But the front door required the actors to adjust timing in order to get to center stage for each new character's arrival and introduction and be in sightlines.  Not a major problem – and one I think we managed to conquer -- but a good lesson (which I didn’t learn completely enough the next time I directed Coward at USF, as I managed to create a variation of the mistake when I worked with Beowulf Borritt on Blithe Spirit.)

One of my favorite memories of the production was the preview audience’s response to the stage picture when lights came up on Act II, the evening party scene.  Hay Fever takes place in an era when people dressed for dinner – and dressed to impress. Kevin Albert created elegant, sparkling, dazzling evening gowns for the women in the cast and clad the men in tuxedos and dinner jackets.

My job was to get the actors in place in a blackout, pose them in such a way that the actors and the clothing were displayed in as breath-taking a tableau as possible, and that after a ‘frozen’ beat, the cast could hurtle headlong into the dialogue and action of the scene, which begins with an intense argument among the Bliss family members. Our work was greeted with an audible gasp followed by a healthy round of applause when the lights snapped on, one of the more gratifying moments of an entirely fun and satisfying production.