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Come and laugh at ‘Mrs. Mannerly’

Before “Mrs. Mannerly” begins, three members of Millbrook’s staff named “Lionel,” “Wanda” and “Rhonda,” dressed in school uniforms, wander through the audience in mock horror, chastising an unlucky few for their unfortunate manners. One of us has her elbows on the table, another has forgotten her fork, and a third is gauche enough to eat forbidden finger food. By the time they have taught us how to “sit like a lady” and “walk with poise” (read: with a book on top of one’s head), we are already in Mrs. Mannerly’s clutches and ready to learn how fold a napkin in the shape of a pyramid. Or not.

“Mrs. Mannerly,” the final cabaret show of the Millbrook season, is a funny, thought-provoking, two-person play featuring Mrs. Mannerly (played by Joan Crooks) and Jeffrey (Matt Harris), one of the students enrolled in her etiquette class. The play, written by Jeffrey Hatcher, is semi-autobiographical, based on a class in manners that he took when he was 10, and the dialogue varies between first-person narration (delivered by the adult actor playing Jeffrey) and interaction between teacher and student, with Harris at these points playing the ten-year-old kid. At times the performance has the feel of a one-man show, with Harris called upon to impersonate family members as well as the other students enrolled in the class, and he offers a skilled, energized performance, deftly moving from one role to the next, giving each character a distinct personality with just a few changes in gesture or voice.

At several points in the play, Crooks finds herself having to freeze in place as Harris comments on the action, and her role often compels her to play the ‘straight man’ or foil. But her character becomes more endearing as the play goes on and we see that she too, like Jeffrey, has sides to her personality that “offering service for 36 years” in a YMCA rumpus room has not allowed her to express. The underlying kindness that permits her to move Jeffrey from “master” to “mister” at the play’s end is present in her performance from the start.

It seems significant that the play is set in 1967, a time when attention to manners had at best a tentative, rapidly fading hold on social consciousness. The issues of the day are present in the background, offering realistic contrast as Mrs. Mannerly’s students learn to identify proper table settings and are forced to dole out quarters to the punishment jar for swearing and for talking about sex. Part of the delight arises here from the intrusions of these realities into the seemingly genteel landscape. As the action proceeds, more and more cracks begin appearing in the façade until Jeffrey and his teacher are allowed to “throw it all out” and face each other honestly and without pretense. The scene in the bar where the two of them finally get to know each other, as Mrs. Mannerly downs a decidedly unmannerly number of scotches while Jeffrey sips politely on his Roy Rogers, is a gem. Jeffrey’s failure during his final test, a failure that reflects badly on his teacher as well as himself, turns out to be an opportunity to break out of the personal and social confines that have limited them both.

A question the play raises is: What are manners good for anyway? For me, half that question was answered by showing that, when rules of etiquette are used to shore up or provide cover for a lonely existence, they aren’t good for much. The play only suggests an answer to the rest of the question. Perhaps it has something to do with manners as markers of essential kindness and decency. See what you think. But when you go, be sure to pack a fork and a napkin!

As another season comes to a close, resounding applause is due to David Leidholdt, Millbrook’s artistic director, and to the entire Millbrook entourage for bringing us superb entertainment this summer, with lots of laughter and even a few tears. Thank you for your exceptional hard work in creating and sustaining a resource that enriches our community beyond measure.

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For ticket information and reservations, call 570-748-8083 or visit millbrookplayhouse.org.

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Karen Elias lives in Swissdale. She taught English for more than 30 years, most recently at Lock Haven University and Penn College.

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