How to Make Your Dysfunctional Family Look Normal

Everyone’s family has quirks. My family? We sing “Happy Birthday” one time per person celebrating that month. January saw five iterations of the song, each in a different key and increasing tempo, per the candles’ demand. But at least we acknowledge it, warning visitors in advance of what oddities to expect. It’s the families who don’t see their eccentricities—don’t give you a heads up that your aunts will be quizzing them on all the hot-button topics Emily Post advised never to touch in polite conversation—that you should fear. Families like the one in Noël Coward’s Hay Fever, which opened last weekend at the Guthrie.

Meet the Bliss family: Sorel (Cat Walleck), Simon (John Skelley), Judith (Harriet Harris), and David (Simon Jones). Judith, the mother, is a well-known actress, currently taking a break from the stage. Her husband, David, is an author. Along with their children, they’ve moved to their summer cottage for a time—apparently too long a time now, as everyone’s getting a bit antsy. To shake things up a little, they’ve each invited a guest to stay for the weekend. Not just any guests, though, their current love interests. Oh, and no one told anyone else they were doing this (much to the demise of Guthrie favorite Barbara Bryne, who plays the family’s maid, Clara). So what was supposed to be a romantic weekend for one turns into a chaotic whirlwind for all. Which is where the fun begins.

Before meeting the guests, a little bit about each Bliss. Harris soars as Judith, throwing herself about the room and switching emotions on and off as if it were normal to transition from being elated to envious of your daughters’ beauty. Skelley plays a skulky yet enthusiastic Simon; not your typical blend of characteristics, but it works well for him. We don’t see much of Jones, as David is in his study most of the play, but when we do see him, he matches the other actors’ theatricality with style. Walleck deftly manipulates everyone around her as Sorel, playing into her mother’s extremism while still, in her mind, being as normal as possible.

Now, for the lovers. Sandy (John Catron) is Judith’s star-struck admirer, a handsome athlete entranced by Judith’s vivacity. Myra (Charity Jones) is Simon’s crush, an older woman (for Simon) who clearly controls the boy and is loathed by Sorel and Judith. Sorel is intrigued by Richard (Matt Sullivan), a straight-laced diplomat who “always says the right thing.” Jackie (Heidi Bakke) is a flapper, brought to the cottage by David so he can observe her as research (of course, she doesn’t know this). It’s an odd mix, to be sure, but not compared to the Blisses.

Coward wrote Hay Fever such that it accelerates with each act, getting funnier, crazier, more physical, and more ridiculous with each perfectly placed line. As the layers build, the Bliss’s eccentricities are revealed. And as soon as they act “normal,” luring their poor guests into a deceived notion of understanding, it’s just a matter of seconds before they’re back to being as unpredictable as ever. The play is an exhausting exercise in emotion and extremes, but instead of tapering out, the actors all play off one another, putting on an exhilarating and hilarious show—one that will make your odd family look blissfully normal.

Hay Fever
Through April 22
Guthrie Theater, 818 Second St. S., Mpls., 612-377-2224