N.C. State's TheatreFEST 2017 was a gratifying upgrade of the series's usual summer diet of thrillers, musicals, and low-grade comedies.
This season, two biographical works and a classic Noël Coward farce all seemed dedicated to bad behavior among the artistic elites of yesteryear. When the odd patchwork of Tea with Edie and Fitz wasn't riffing on F. Scott Fitzgerald's boozy contretemps with Edith Wharton (a worldly, dignified Rachel Klem), actor Katie Barrett championed a beleaguered Zelda Fitzgerald as the unsung, possibly superior artist in the family. And Lynda Clark delighted audiences as the catty, crafty sixties fashion icon Diana Vreeland in a top-flight solo show, Full Gallop.
In series closer Hay Fever, Coward's tribute to a real-life theatrical family known for its unique brand of hospitality, a novelist, his actor wife, and two irritable adult children are in the final agonies of cabin fever on a country estate too far from London. Crisis is inevitable when everyone invites house guests for the same weekend, with no place to put them.
Under John McIlwee's direction, JoAnne Dickinson captured Judith as an actor stuck in diva mode. When a diplomat (a smooth Jonathan King), Judith's errant fanboy (a dyspeptic Linh Schladweiler), and a calculating vamp (Lynda Clark) get a little indiscreet in their affections, the diva and her husband, David (a canny Danny Norris), plunge the bewildered weekenders into reenactments of Judith's favorite melodramas, whose bodice-ripping (and mostly fictional) passions can only be brazened through.
After a rough first act, the ensemble found its pacing; given the stiff competition in a summer season TheatreFEST used to dominate, this year's upgrades should continue.