BROOKSVILLE — The outer limit of my theatrical travels has just expanded by 25 miles or so. Saturday night I passed through Blue Hill and my usual stop at the Town Hall Theater. I continued west along Route 176, which consisted largely of narrow, bumpy country roads, passing through the towns of Penobscot and Sedgwick and eventually reaching Brooksville, with the Bagaduce River’s sparkling waters off to the left and lush, rolling hayfields and farmhouses to the right.
A small, white hand-painted sign at the end of Mills Point Road announced the way to the Bagaduce Theatre, which was putting on a performance of Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever.”
As lovely as this evening drive was, I was feeling a bit trepidatious about the hour-and-a-half drive home as I bumped along this unpaved lane for about a mile or so — more fields and farmhouses — until I arrived at my destination. This turned out to be another farmhouse with a handsome gambrel-roofed barn set in a vast field with the river winking in the distance.
As lovely as all this was, the place seemed more suited to a herd of cows than the sophisticated, urbane works of Coward.
I was forgetting, of course, that this particular play, “Hay Fever,” is set in the English country house of the retired stage actress Judith Bliss and her family. Even so, I was expecting hay bales to be a significant element of the set design and a sort of “Hey, guys, let’s put on a show in the barn” sort of performance — more enthusiasm than theatrical expertise.
Again, oh my!
Bagaduce Theatre’s stage does, indeed, have two hay lofts hovering above it, but no bales in sight. Instead what the audience walked into was set designer John Vivian’s elegant, well-appointed living room resembling a gilded-era Bar Harbor summer cottage.
What followed, thrillingly directed by Patricia Connelly with assistance from Bryan Lescord, was a master class in great theater.
What a perfect choice of play for this setting and the superb cast of professional actors, aspiring professionals and talented locals.
We first meet the Bliss children, the adorably self-absorbed Sorrel (an enchanting Lauren Elwood) and her alternately petulant and passionate brother Simon (an excellently angst-ridden Gaines Semler.)
They are a perfectly matched set of terribly attractive, terribly entitled 20-somethings, who at the moment are lounging about and bickering about their love lives or lack thereof. It seems each of them has invited a guest for the weekend, claiming the preferred spare room. They are interrupted by the maid Clara, whose portrayal by Sally Mills once again proves there is no such thing as a small part — even while setting a formal table or placing a tea tray she exudes righteous resentment.
Enter mama, Judith Bliss, who announces in this and every other entrance and exit she makes, and all the moments in between, that she was a famous stage actress and has still got what it takes. Monique Fowler, a Broadway actress herself, plays this fabulous woman with such commanding perfection that we can’t take our eyes off her. She is the sun about which all the other characters and the audience revolve. It appears that she too has invited a young admirer to stay the weekend. This, despite the fact that her novelist husband, David, perfectly underplayed by Robert Burke, is upstairs writing his next potboiler. He too, we discover, when he emerges from his garret, has invited a guest — a pretty young flapper he plans to “study” for his novel.
When the guests arrive, the arch beauty Myra (a wonderfully devious Simone Stadler); the buttoned-up diplomat Richard (an excellent Daryll Heysham); the star-struck, no, besotted, boy Sandy (an adorably nerdy Andy Donnelly); and the shy flapper Jackie (sweetly realized by Ella Smith), we soon discover they each have an amorous ulterior motive — and not necessarily with the Bliss that brought ’em. They are, however, way, way, out of their league.
What unfolds is an extraordinarily hilarious game of cat and mouse with the Bliss family batting about the emotions of their hapless house guests like cat toys. Eventually both the guests and audience figure out that it is all a charade this dramatically over-endowed family enjoys playing when they get bored bickering with one another other. While the houseguests make an escape with their dignity in tatters, I’m sure I wasn’t the only member of the audience who would have liked to have stayed on to experience more of these blissful shenanigans.
The marvelous Monique Fowler was apparently responsible for the excellent 1920s era costuming as well as her starring role, which included her own flowing caftans, Myra’s elegant gowns, Sorrel’s girlish summer frock, lots of tweed for the guys and Clara’s hand-tatted Bertha collar, cuffs and cap.
Everything about this play, like its star, shrieked professionalism and was well worth the time, effort and gas mileage it took to get there. The only disappointment I felt as I made the long drive home was that I had missed two years of these productions. I will not make that mistake again.
“Hay Fever” will be performed at 7 p.m. July 3, 5 and 6 and at 3 p.m. on July 7. To reserve seats, call 801-1536 and visit bagaducetheatre.com.