Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007

Coward’s end

1947 revisited: Rockville Little Theatre opens its 60th season by restaging its premiere show

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Laurie Dewitt⁄The Gazette
Trace Gorsline strikes a Cowardian pose as Simon.
Some people get hay fever; some people don’t. People involved with Rockville Little Theatre get it frequently because ‘‘Hay Fever,” the drawing room comedy by Noel Coward, was the very first play this particular community theater group ever produced, way back in 1967. Now, as part of the celebration of its 60th season, Rockville Little Theatre is staging ‘‘Hay Fever” once again.

‘‘I love Noel Coward,” proclaims Millie Ferrara, the retired Prince George’s County elementary school teacher who plays the matriarch of the over-the-top Bliss family. ‘‘I just think he’s witty and wonderful — such a great writer.”

Ferrara has a wonderful time with Coward’s wit, and with the camaraderie that builds up in this community theater cast. Of different ages, with different abilities, from different walks of life — performing in community theater is what Ferrara calls ‘‘a creative outlet.

‘‘I think its purpose is twofold,” she says. ‘‘First of all, it’s a form of entertainment that everyone can afford. Certainly I used community theater when my children were young, to introduce them to the theater.

‘‘For the actors, it allows them to use their skills and their talents.”

Over the years, the actress says, she has seen a lot of people use community theater ‘‘as a stepping stone” to a professional career. But mostly, it’s a place where people who love acting — or directing, set and lighting design, every aspect of theater — can be bask in the glow of the footlights even though their actual career may be something very different.

Cryptic eloquence

Alex Fraser calls himself ‘‘an interdisciplinary miscellaneologist.”

The director of ‘‘Hay Fever” declines to give his age, but he sports a hoary beard and speaks with the cryptic eloquence of a gentleman with a healthy set of decades under his belt.

‘‘I was in a play in sixth grade back in Indiana,” he says. ‘‘And it was in a one room schoolhouse!”

Except for a favor he did for a friend while at Indiana University (‘‘There was a chap I knew who was getting his Ph.D. in drama...”), Fraser did little acting, even when he was based in California, first getting an MBA from the University of Southern California, then teaching there for two years.

When his entrepreneurial career brought him to Washington, D.C., he became involved in the community theater scene.

‘‘The pool of talent in D.C. is enormous,” he says. ‘‘The people in community theater here — the good ones — could be in theater anyplace in the world, but they’ve chosen to earn their livelihood in some other way.”

Fraser is, among other things, the founder of the Open University of Washington. Some of the classes he has taught might work as titles for romantic comedies: ‘‘Chess for Beginners,” ‘‘How to Marry Money,” ‘‘Sexual Seminar for Men” and ‘‘Money and The Young Professional.” And over the course of his community theater ‘‘career,” he has become a published playwright. But Fraser admits he got into community theater because that’s where the best parties were.

‘‘It’s a way of meeting people, making friends,” he says. ‘‘It’s a way of keeping in touch with friends you’ve met already.”

Lover juggler

Noel Pierce Coward probably felt the same way. Born middle class in Middlesex England in 1899, he was in the British equivalent of Fraser’s sixth grade when he took on his first professional theater role. He was 20 when he took on his first starring role in a play he himself had written — and it all pretty much sailed on from there. In 1924, he wrote ‘‘Hay Fever,” the story of a quirky family at their country ‘‘hice” [house] playing romantic musical chairs with their guests.

‘‘It’s a lot of fun to do,” says Ferrara, whose Maltese, Juliet, has become a cast member. ‘‘With this role in particular, you’re always in a good mood when you’re finished.”

This role — retired actress and still keen lover-juggler Judith Bliss — allows Ferrara to be elegant and slapstick at the same time.

Back when it was first performed by Rockville Little Theatre, ‘‘Hay Fever” must have been a hoot. Six friends, living in Rockville and unwilling, apparently, to shell out $1.20 a pop for Broadway tickets, decided to create their own theater. That year, the first Tony Awards were handed out, Rev. Black, Madeliene Davis, Margaret Eddy, Pamela Bairsto, Murray Hamilton and Betty Sherman founded Rockville Little Theatre.

‘‘We’ve got people who have been around for years,” says David Levin, who started performing 30 years ago with Rockville Musical Theatre and drifted to Rockville Little Theatre. ‘‘People like to get up and act, but it takes more than that to make community theater work.”

Nowadays, the company rehearses in a cluttered space behind Glenview Mansion, where loading docks disguise the headquarters of other dramatic arts organizations plus sports teams and even a climbing wall. Back then, the show went on in the Christ Episcopal Parish Haller; today, performances take place on the stage of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre. And as much as things change, in some ways they stay the same.

Landmark

Fraser calls it ‘‘the certain feeling of needing public approval: the feeling each of us has [or we wouldn’t survive] that we are special and need the affirmation of applause.”

Noel Coward got it from his plays, of course, writing them and performing, too. He also wrote songs — all the songs before, during and after the Rockville Little Theatre’s performances of ‘‘Hay Fever” will be Coward tunes — dabbled in filmmaking (he won an honorary Oscar for the naval film drama ‘‘In Which We Serve,” which the playwright wrote, starred in, composed the music for and co-directed with David Lean) and hung out with the fabulous and famous around the globe until his death in 1973.

When Ian Fleming, his neighbor in Jamaica, asked him to play the villain in the James Bond film ‘‘Dr. No.” Coward’s wry reply: ‘‘‘Dr. No?’ No. No. No.”

As Fraser says, this production of ‘‘Hay Fever” is ‘‘a whole evening of Noel Coward — and how could you go wrong with that?”

But it’s also a whole evening of tradition, an evening that’s a landmark of how far one community theater has come and how far it intends to go.

‘‘There has to be a lot of dedication,” says Ferrara, ‘‘by people you don’t ever see ...There’s a lot of work involved with keeping it going.”

Sixty years worth of work — and socializing, laughter and drama. Like hay fever — some people come down with it, and some people never do.

Rockville Little Theatre presents ‘‘Hay Fever,” by Noel Coward, Sept. 28 through Oct. 7, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, Rockville Civic Center Park, 603 Edmonston Ave., Rockville. Tickets are $16, $14 for seniors 62 and older and students with a valid I.D. Call 240-314-8690 or visit www.rlt-online.org.