It’s hard to imagine a small country theater company like Clay & Wattles, tucked tightly into the pastoral setting at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, as a theatrical jewel. However, this theater group is repeatedly producing excellent productions and the theater-going public needs to be aware of this company’s work.

For the first time in Connecticut, Clay & Wattles presents Act One, the biographical portrait of playwright Moss Hart, at The Gary-The Olivia Theater located on the grounds of the Abbey. This is not only an outstanding production, but the play really is the thing here. That’s not to say that the set and costumes are not terrific because they are, but the story of Moss Hart’s life and his struggles to get a play to Broadway make for one of the most important stories told about theater. Anyone interested in pursuing a career in theater must see this play written by James Lapine. It is as much about the process of readying a play for Broadway as it is the moving rags-to-riches story of Moss Hart.

Hart is known for plays such as You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner. This play focuses on Hart’s first Broadway hit Once in a Lifetime. Born to a poor immigrant family, Hart first fell in love with theater vicariously. His Aunt Kate would come home from the theater and share the experience with Hart, who loved to read and tell stories. Forced to quit school after eighth grade in order to earn money for his family, he was determined to get out of the poverty to which he and his family were accustomed. Showing how Hart worked his way up the ladder from office boy to playwright and then presenting the process in which his plays had to go through before making it to Broadway, makes this play as much a touching human interest story as a revelation on what a playwright goes through. This includes endless rewrites, out-of-town runs, countless disappointments and then perhaps success.

The 14-member cast plays more than 40 roles. Director Sally Camm has brought together an amazing cast and created a most memorable production. Jeff Ronan as the middle-aged Hart has created a vivid and fully realized character. Ronan’s talents are so strong that he portrays Hart as shy, excited, nervous, or confident by feeling all of the above himself. He digs deep and his efforts result in highly dramatic moments.

Thomas Camm, who is regularly featured at this theater, once again moves in and out characters with the ease of a chameleon. When he’s George S. Kaufman, he’s eccentric; when he’s the older Hart and the narrator, he’s factual; and when he’s Moss’s father, he is downright mean. You know just what role he plays by his stance, facial expressions and his telling gestures.

Catherine Annulli and Barbara Salant bring their characters to vivid life. Salant as Aunt Kate reacts so believably that when she hurts you feel for her. Nico Apicella holds his own as the young, boyish Moss and Jonathan Gibbons, David Macharelli and Michael Hodges give standout performances as Moss’s friends. Maurio Hines is especially potent as the angry actor who resents how few roles there are for black men and Tim Phillips as Mr. Pitou, Moss’s first boss, delivers a solid performance. Also contributing to the success of this show are: Pat Spalding, Caroline McCaughey, Megan Corcoran and Alexandra Camm.

Before the show started, I took one look at Matt Wood’s set and thought “How on earth are they going to make this work?” As soon as the play started, Kevin McElroy’s strategic lighting showed just how well this two-level, multiple-location set would work. At one point, curtain rods bearing green-painted canvases are quickly put up to suggest the scenery for Beloved Bandit, Moss’s first flop. It’s so clever a set change that the audience gave it a rousing applause. Charles Smith provided excellent music throughout the production and worked well with Patrick Monaghan’s sound and Lesley Bowman’s costumes accented the characters’ identities brilliantly.

This is a must-see production. Bethlehem is a hop, skip, and a jump away from Woodbury. Get there before the show closes on June 19. The theater is an outdoor venue, but with a roof over the stage as well the  audience. Box office: 203-273-5669

Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association.  She welcomes comments.