Different Stages' Mrs. Mannerly

Jeffrey Hatcher's nostalgic comedy gently leads the audience back to small-town Ohio in the Sixties


Jennifer Underwood as Mrs. Mannerly (l) and Suzanne Balling as Jeffrey (photo by Different Stages)

What's the difference between "Good morning" and "Good day"? How many forks do you really need in a place setting? Why should a gentleman hold a door for a lady? Such are the concerns of the students of Mrs. Mannerly's school for manners in Steubenville, Ohio, in 1967.

This is the class to which young Jeffrey Hatcher (the playwright, played in this Different Stages production by Suzanne Balling) is sent after an outrageous outburst in church one Sunday. Early on in this semi-autobiographical story, Jeffrey tells his older cousins that he is enrolled in Mrs. Mannerly's class, and they ask only what that has to do with Vietnam.

That's as edgy as it gets in this sweet story about a young boy and his teacher (Jennifer Underwood). Jeffrey, who has never been first at anything, decides that of everyone in his social set in Steubenville, he will be the first student ever to earn a perfect mark on the final test, administered in the presence of the domineering Daughters of the American Revolution. To achieve this distinction will require not only manners but cunning as well. Jeffrey sideswipes his four fellow classmates one at a time, eliminating his competition. He makes an ally of Mrs. Mannerly herself, who seems to see in Jeffrey a kindred spirit – but Jeffrey is also out to uncover Mrs. Mannerly's secret past. As a 9-year-old boy in short pants, he plugs her with Scotch and works secret deals with the local high school drama teacher to discover what she's hiding.

If there's a message to the play Mrs. Mannerly, it's that manners are nothing more or less than an act we put on, a means to an end. Jeffrey and Mrs. Mannerly and all the rest of the characters (Balling plays several) assume the practice of etiquette simply to get by.

Having lived in Ohio, I'd say the play is very much a product of its setting, the playwright's hometown. It's modest in nearly every way: the small cast, the single set (here the work of Anne Marie Gordon), the measured pacing. The narrative only reaches so far. Even the limited cursing is mild, as things go. As much as Mrs. Mannerly herself seems a relic, the play is a gentle, humorous offering of a story. It doesn't shake the Earth, but it seems to satisfy the playwright's desire to shape the ghosts of his own past into something well-formed and entertaining.

Under the direction of Karen Jambon, the two actors engage well with one another. The production is staged in the Santa Cruz Center for Culture, a tiny space even by the standards of Austin, where black box theatres dominate – and yet the performances are pitched as if to a house of a thousand. Gestures are frequently over-pitched, occasionally veering on cartoonish.

Balling's many characters are crisp in their definition, and Underwood becomes more endearing as the play goes on. Perhaps as the run continues, the actors will bring their energies down to the intimate levels that a small space like the Santa Cruz Center serves, and that a mild script like Mrs. Mannerly fosters.

After all, it would only be polite.


Mrs. Mannerly

Santa Cruz Center for Culture, 1805 E. Seventh
www.main.org/diffstages
Through April 15
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Different Stages
Different Stages' <i>Gliders</i>
Different Stages' Gliders
Rita Anderson's domestic drama sets one family's frictions against the backdrop of the Apollo 11 mission

Robert Faires, Feb. 28, 2020

Different Stages' <i>The Book Club Play</i>
Different Stages' The Book Club Play
This production captures both the cringeworthy humor and drama of its characters in a mockumentary for the stage

Trey Gutierrez, March 29, 2019

More Arts Reviews
“Altered Allusions: New Works by Nate Szarmach” at Davis Gallery
“Altered Allusions: New Works by Nate Szarmach” at Davis Gallery
In these paintings of Christian figures, the lack of focus is the focus

April 16, 2021

"Dogs Heal in Borderlandia: Andrea Muñoz Martinez"
In this solo exhibition, the artist provides canine companions for a most colorful landscape

Robert Faires, March 19, 2021

More by Elizabeth Cobbe
Book Review: <i>Network Effect</i> by Martha Wells
Book Review: Network Effect by Martha Wells
In this first full-length novel featuring Murderbot, the violent but endearing rogue AI is back for more adventures to delight "all the stupid humans"

July 31, 2020

Sad Girls Productions’ <i>So Lucky</i>
Sad Girls Productions' So Lucky
This world premiere from a brand-new company lacks polish, but it does honor its community’s stories

March 20, 2020

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Different Stages, Karen Jambon, Suzanne Balling, Jennifer Underwood, Anne Marie Gordon, Santa Cruz center for Culture, Jeffrey Hatcher

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle