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Review: MRS. MANNERLY is a Sweetly Comic Story of Youth

MRS. MANNERLY, a memory play by Jeffrey Hatcher, takes inspiration from the playwright's memories of a childhood etiquette class that he took at the tender young age of ten. Walking with an etiquette book balanced on your head, learning complex table settings with a confounding array of flatware and stemware, and dropping a quarter in a jar each time you interrupt...those were the ways of Mrs. Mannerly's classes in 1967. Mrs. Mannerly (Jennifer Underwood) has high standards; so high, in fact, that not one student in her thirty-six years of teaching proper deportment has ever achieved perfection. Young Jeffrey (Suzanne Balling) wants to be the first and he has a trick up his sleeve that he thinks makes him a shoe-in to achieve that sought after goal... he has discovered Mrs. Mannerly has a secret past.

This unique and sweetly comic tale reveals truths about the face we present vs the face that lies hidden from pubic viewing. It is a gentle look back at a time in America that has long passed. Hatcher's play is a mix of both nostalgia and astringent, centering on that cultural dinosaur, children's etiquette classes. Told as a memory from Jeffrey's youth, it is the kind of story one might hear on Prairie Home Companion or by humorist David Sedaris, and is as loving a memory as A Christmas Story, with the exception of a few adult words. This two-hander has one performer as Mrs. Mannerly and all the other characters, including the narrator, are handled by the other performer.

Director Karen Jambon has used a light touch here to beautiful effect, creating a little gem of a coming-of-age story. The performances shine, as they should. The set design by Ann Marie Gordon is simple and tasteful, and hints at setting as a memory play should. It clearly indicates the way people remember things, evoking rather than defining. James Jennings has done a nice job with the lights considering the relatively new venue's limited resource of lighting instruments. Shannon Mott has costumed the piece with a nice late sixties feel.

The two performers here are among the best this town has to offer. Jennifer Underwood is funny and touching as the woman with the unknown secret... and may make you think of that favorite teacher of yours. The one who was a task master and yet made you secretly want to be her pet student, the one you had a secret special connection with. Suzanne Balling has the bulk of the heavy lifting in the piece, playing not only Jeffrey as a ten year old boy and the adult narrator, but also all the other students and family members in the story. She switches voices, gender and body language on a dime, in a remarkable display of acting ability and agility.

In our deeply cynical and troubled times, MRS. MANNERLY is a whimsical and welcome throwback to another world and another time. It is a gentle feel good evening of theatre that warms the soul like a cup of cocoa on a cold winter night.

MRS. MANNERLY by Jeffrey Hatcher

Running time: 90 Minutes with No Intermission

MRS. MANNERLY, produced by Different Stages, at Santa Cruz Center for Culture's Theatre (1805 E. 7th Street ). Santa Cruz Theatre, home of Aztlan Dance Company, is directly across from Huston-Tillotson University on the east side of I-35.

Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.
Tickets are: $15 Thursday, and pick your price $20, $25 or $30 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets go to or for Information call 512-926-6747.

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From This Author - Frank Benge

A Kansas native, Frank Benge has been involved in the Austin area theatre scene as a Director, Designer, Writer and Performer for the past 20 years. He holds a double BA in Theatre and English from... (read more about this author)