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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 45.0° F  Fair
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Light summer laughs in Hay Fever at APT
While the Blisses may be terrible people to visit, they're a lot of fun to watch.
Credit:Zane Williams

British playwright Noël Coward was no stranger to getting some R&R in the Wisconsin woods.

Coward was a frequent guest at Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, the spacious, eclectic home of fellow theater legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Though a cultivated bon vivant, Coward obviously found something both restful and energizing in the Wisconsin landscape.

About 130 miles west of Ten Chimneys, Spring Green's American Players Theatre is staging its first Coward play ever, Hay Fever. Theatergoers should find it a splendid excuse for some relaxation of their own.

Written in 1924, Hay Fever is as light and fluffy as a cream puff. If you're looking for deep meaning or biting social critique, well, seek elsewhere. But if you're looking to laugh and enjoy a fantastic vehicle for APT core company actor Tracy Michelle Arnold, this is your show.

Hay Fever takes place on a single weekend in June at the summer house of a moneyed and bohemian family, the Blisses. Mother Judith (Arnold) is a retired stage actress who can't give up her lust for the limelight. Young-adult children Sorel (Tiffany Scott) and Simon (Steve Haggard) are mostly layabouts, and father David (Brian Mani) writes.

Each, without telling the others, has invited a visitor for the weekend. And when Sorel comments early on to her brother that she's warned her guest, a diplomat, "not to expect good manners," it's a colossal understatement. This is a family so batty and utterly self-absorbed that the needs of their guests -- or overwhelmed household employee Clara -- barely even register.

While the Blisses may be terrible people to visit, they're a lot of fun to watch.

Tracy Michelle Arnold excels in a role that could hardly be more different than her turn as Kate in Harold Pinter's Old Times, also playing at APT this season. While her Old Times character is restrained, virtually mute at times, and played largely with subtle facial expressions, Hay Fever's Judith is all big gestures and histrionics.

Though she's married (a wee detail she's neglected to tell her guest), she has invited strapping young boxer Sandy (Andy Truschinski) for the weekend. He's seen her on the stage, and she's ready to bask in his fan-boy adulation.

Arnold's low, rich voice and lanky build mesh well with her character. Judith carries herself with aristocratic ease -- fame and money are her birthright, apparently -- but a life on the stage has also taught her to arrange herself just so, for maximum effect. Image is everything to Judith.

Under the direction of William Brown, Arnold builds in countless funny moments. My favorite is during a charades-like after-dinner game, in which she must portray the word "winsomely." Her affected squeaking and mugging is hilarious.

Arnold also proved her quick wit when she nearly missed an ottoman as she attempted to sit down: "I'm getting old. My eyesight isn't what it used to be," she ad-libbed, a statement appropriate to her character but also a joke at her own expense.

Susan Shunk, as the shy, intimidated flapper Jackie, also has some fine moments of physical comedy. And though the role of household helper Clara is fairly small, Colleen Madden makes the most of it. Crusty Clara is the one person who dares call the Bliss family out on their thoughtlessness.

Rachel Anne Healy's costume designs deserve special note. They're gorgeous and help flesh out the nature of the characters. For example, Judith's ridiculously large "garden hat" in Act I is really more about looking good than digging in the dirt. And her sleeveless gown of deep purple satin in Act II, with its crystal buttons at the hip, was a wonderful slice of '20s fashion.

Judging from the exuberant snorting of the man seated next to my friend, I wasn't the only person who thought Hay Fever was just the right sort of fare for a muggy summer evening. I think Noël Coward would have been pleased.

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