“Mrs. Mannerly” -- at TheaterWorks Hartford through November 17
By Tom Nissley
Prepare to be delighted, enthralled, carried away to Steubenville, Ohio in 1967, where a ten-year-old giant (Raymond McNally as Jeffrey Hatcher) meets the structure of the adult world in a class taught by legendary Mrs. Mannerly (Dale Hodges). The dear lady has been grooming Steubenville’s boys and girls since the time of the great depression, teaching them how to walk with poise, set a table correctly, speak nicely, and become respected citizens. No member of the fine families of Steubenville can grow, or has grown, up without her help.
Mrs. Manners admits to having traveled far in her long-ago youth, but never to Chicago! Jeffrey, however, believes she not only lived there at one time, but left a legacy she wants to keep hidden. So besides learning to be super good at achieving the rules of manner-hood, he keeps an ear open to search out the truth.
McNally is a superb and flexible actor, who not only switches between Hatcher the narrator and Jeffrey the child, but also manages to introduce us to other members of Mrs. Mannerly’s class -- kids with names like Julie and Kim and Chucky (who has not learned to use a handkerchief for his dripping nose), and a slightly older graduate from the class who agrees to be his dance partner at the graduation ceremony in the assembly hall of the Steubenville DAR. Her own manners have given way to hormones. In a hilarious few minutes while Mrs. Mannerly is out of the room, Jeffrey is... um...attacked by her as she teaches him to make out before they try to master the Cha Cha Cha. McNally manages this scene wrestling with her glasses against his nose. It’s a priceless moment of theater.
Hodges is also a master of mannerly movements, including her abrupt freeze at the mention of “Chicago,” and her drooping foot on the evening that Jeffrey walks her home to her flat above a bar but takes her for a short cocktail break before saying goodnight. The foot droops a little farther after each round.
The performance was staged by Ed Stern, who was the artistic director of the Cincinnati Playhouse for many years, and also directed the same production in Cincinnati. The set design (Brian Mehring) and costumes (Rebecca Senske) also came from the Cincinnati staging.
Light cues -- and there were many -- were handled by TheaterWork’s own John Lassiter. Sound design by Matt Callahan. Lanny Nagler's publicity portrait of a handsome youth (Ned Coursey) for the program designed by WondriskaRusso is a nice bonus.
The final devastation at the DAR auditorium is a testament to all three dimensions of this wonderful production: Hatcher’s fun rebellious child, his secret caring for Mrs. Mannerly that makes a man of him in not quite the expected way (!), and the mystery of her days in Chicago. A great script. Great actors. Great direction. Color it not to be missed.
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre