How long has it been since you last said “what?” to someone because you didn’t hear or understand what they said. Well, that’s not long enough. Good manners indicate that it is always more proper in such situations to say, “I beg your pardon?” That and a few other lessons, some more personal, are the subject of the latest show by Good Theater.

After opening their season with an ambitious and very successful production of “The Rainmaker,” the resident company at St. Lawrence Arts in Portland has scaled things back a bit with Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Mrs. Mannerly.” In its Maine premiere, the 85-minute play features only two performers, though one does fill multiple roles, and a relatively modest scenario drawn from the author’s childhood memories of a manners and etiquette teacher he found to be unforgettable.

Under the direction of Steve Underwood, the generous helpings of broad comedy in this show are delivered with near over-the-top performances. But the addition of some subtler social commentary, mixed with a few theater in-jokes sweetly invites even well-mannered theatergoers to RSVP favorably to this light entertainment about doing the right thing.

Thursday’s performance, the first non-preview performance of the run, did include a couple of blown lines in a small show that, like the formal place settings taught by Mrs. Mannerly, needs everything to be just right.

The play takes place in Steubenville, Ohio, in 1967. Pop-cultural references abound, some quite obscure (Gig Young!). Projected slides at the back of the stage remind us of hippies and Vietnam as well as the general environs of middle America at the time. It was a complex era in American society but, for the title character, the age-old values of propriety were still worthy of being taught, as long as attention and tuition were paid.

After comical scenes that establish her firm, if quirky, teaching style, we learn that Mrs. Mannerly can be a little less proper than the role she plays with most of her students. Kim Gordon, a veteran actress making her Portland debut, takes the lead role and is quite good at comically revealing some of the darker underpinnings of a woman of humble origins who knows how to fake membership in the upper crust without being phony about it (a distinction central to Mrs. Mannerly’s teaching). Her character’s somewhat mysterious background in theater comes through in a number places, particularly when she’s had a scotch or two. There are some spontaneous dramatic asides and a brief, off-key song and dance number that will make you hope for more from Gordon in the future.


Michael Wood plays the author, who appears both as an adult narrator and the preadolescent boy he was when he enrolled in Mrs. Mannerly’s class hoping to find something he could master. Wood pulls out all the stops in an, at times, breathless performance. Also playing several odd classmates, both male and female, his abrupt changes in posture and wacky mugging, not to mention the non-stop and often risqué lines he utters, had some in the Thursday night audience laughing with as much abandon as the actor was displaying onstage. Wood obviously has drawn on his inner imp in bringing young Jeffrey to life and Underwood has him move around the tables and chairs of the minimal set with all the crazy energy of the unruly youngsters remembered by the author.

The lighting design by Iain Odlin helps to delineate the tone of various scenes and keep things a bit in check.

Young Jeffrey’s bonding with his teacher provides the central warmth of this show and a denouement regarding a competition before the Daughters of the American Revolution leads to a message about keeping a hold on what’s important in a world full of facades.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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