Coward's Jamaica retreat still contains his touches

CRITIC'S CORNER

Theater

November 24, 2005|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Unlike the owners of the country home in his 1925 comedy, Hay Fever (currently at Center Stage), when Noel Coward built a vacation retreat, he did not want houseguests.

In Jamaica recently, I visited Firefly, the home the British playwright built, high atop a mountain. The living room is furnished with two pianos; the dining room has one wall open to the air; the study is still equipped with his desk and portable typewriter; and there's only one bedroom.

When Coward had visitors, they stayed at Blue Harbour, the guesthouse he owned at the bottom of the mountain. Coward "hated staying in other people's houses," Clive Fisher writes in his 1992 biography. The playwright was renting Ian Fleming's Jamaica home, Goldeneye, when he decided to get a home of his own.

According to my guide, Annette Tracey, Coward purchased the property, just outside the town of Port Maria, for 150 British pounds. Construction of the modest house with the magnificent view was completed in 1956. It shares the site with a limestone building that reputedly served as a lookout point for 17th-century pirate Henry Morgan.

Coward spent three to six months at Firefly every year. In Future Indefinite, the second volume of his autobiography, he writes: "Sitting on my Jamaican veranda and looking out across the bay at Port Maria, it is difficult to imagine that I ever saw the island for the first time, for it has become so much a part of my life, and given me such pleasure and peace of mind that I feel that I have known it always."

Aside from writing at Firefly, Coward painted, and his paintings -- mostly island scenes -- decorate the walls.

Now run by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, the house not only contains the writers' furnishings, but also many of his other belongings, as varied as books, records and sheet music, and monogrammed towels. In the dining room, the table is set for four with his Spode china.

Coward died at Firefly in 1973, and his grave is on the property, facing the sea. He was not the first to make this spot his final resting place. In their book, Firefly: Noel Coward in Jamaica, Chris Salewicz and Adrian Boot write that after Coward's death, the land was found to be the burial ground of Taino Indians, Jamaica's original inhabitants, "who had been inspired by the beauty of the location to create a sacred site."

If you'd like a taste of the opposite of the tranquillity Coward found in Jamaica, Hay Fever -- the play inspired by the comic chaos he experienced at the home of legendary American actress Laurette Taylor -- continues through Dec. 4 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Call 410-332-0033 or visit centerstage.org.

Arts sampler

Six Baltimore arts institutions have joined forces to offer a combined subscription package. For $110, subscribers may sample the Baltimore Opera Company, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Center Stage, the Creative Alliance, Everyman Theatre and the Carl Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University.

Coordinated by the free monthly magazine The Urbanite and sponsored by Daedalus Books, the series is called The Urbanite 6 Pack. Kathleen Dragovich of The Urbanite said the package is modeled after a similar series in Hartford, Conn. "Everybody has been talking about the need for new audiences at theaters in town," she said, adding that the series is also "a great value because you can never buy tickets individually to all of these for $110."

Subscribers can select from various offerings at five of the participating organizations; the Baltimore Opera ticket will be limited to the March production of Dead Man Walking.

To purchase a 6 Pack, call 410-727-6000 or visit urbanitebalti more.com.

New at Everyman

Everyman Theatre has a new managing director: Sara Rutstein, managing director of Curious Theatre Company in Denver, will step into the job Dec. 12. At Curious, Rutstein increased the annual budget and attendance by more than 300 percent over two years. She was raised in Bethesda and in 2001 participated in the inaugural New Generations Program sponsored by regional theater organization Theatre Communications Group and aimed at mentoring theater professionals early in their careers.

Before holding her position in Denver, she worked at Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, the Shakespeare Theatre and Olney Theatre Center. At Everyman, her immediate duties will include spearheading the search for a new building and the related capital campaign.

Rutstein replaces Steven Leon, who left last season to become assistant general manager at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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