MRT’s ‘Mrs. Mannerly’ oozes charm, warmth

Photo credits: Jan Neuberger and Matthew Schneck in Mrs. Mannerly by Jeffrey Hatcher at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Photo credits: Jan Neuberger and Matthew Schneck in Mrs. Mannerly by Jeffrey Hatcher at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Photo by Meghan Moore.

LOWELL — It is Oct. 1, 1967, and 9-year-old Jeffrey Hatcher is one of “Mrs. Mannerly’s boys,” eventually to become a legend of sorts.
There have been very many of them in the 36 years that Helen Anderson Kirk — aka Mrs. Mannerly — has been using her manners class to smooth out the rough edges of youngsters in Steubenville, Ohio, and Hatcher is only doing it to escape right field in Little League.
But what begins as the teacher/pupil relationship at what used to be called “charm school” becomes something special in the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of Hatcher’s autobiographical “Mrs. Mannerly,” now at the Nancy Donahue Theatre through Nov. 17.
Mrs. Mannerly, it turns out, is one of those special people we Baby Boomers were brought up with in the monthly Reader’s Digest feature “My Most Unforgettable Character.”
Helen Anderson Kirk has many rules in her class — don’t ever say “What” instead of “Pardon Me” — and she has a tart tongue when it comes to the town and its residents, such as when she observes that “the primary source of nutrition in Steubenville appears to be the communion wafer.”
The 60’s tunes are churned out by the bucketful in the moments leading up to the
moment Jan Neuberger and Matthew Schneck take the stage as Mrs. Mannerly and Hatcher. We know that the 60’s were a decade of change, and traditions such as manners classes are on the way out.
But somehow five families have found enough resources to send three boys and two girls to the second floor “rumpus room” and former gym in the Third Street YMCA in Steubenvville.
There are five students at the beginning of the course, all hilariously performed by Schneck. One by one they fall by the wayside for various reasons,
Quite often, the adult Jeffrey addresses us, looking back on the days in question with humor all-knowing commentary.
There is the moment when he is hilariously unable to walk across the room with a book on his head because, according to Mrs. Mannerly, he is “a pinhead.”
But Hatcher is also a precocious student. When challenged, he is able to correctly identify all of the elements of a dinner place setting from left to right in record time — a feat which earns him special recognition — and fold a napkin just so.
There is a coming-of-age moment when Patsy LoPresta, the “ringer” brought in to serve as Hatcher’s dance partner when the female students fall by the wayside, asks him if he “wants to make out.”
But wait — while Mrs. Mannerly is pretty forthcoming about her past, Hatcher finds out she lied when she said she had never visited Chicago — indeed, as a young actress, she appeared at a Chicago theater. Why would she lie? What else is she covering up?
There is the sadness when Mrs. Mannerly and Jeffrey spend time together Rooming house/hotel downtown and hangs with her at the hotel bar, where she is apparently quite well-known for her consumption of Scotch.
Looming in the distance is the day when Hatcher alone will carry the flag into the annual presentation before the Daughters of the American Revolution, and what will ensue in his pursuit of the first perfect score in the 36-year history of the manners school.
Scenic designer James Fenton has faithfully replicated the faded glory of the Y’s former gym, now home to athletics of a different sort and competition of a different sort
Director Mark Shanahan has performed the Hatcher role in the past and he knows what works in the piece, surely invaluable information that Schneck found useful.
“Mrs. Mannerly” oozes charm and warmth, and we in the audience are putty in the hands of Neuberger and Schneck.
Mrs. Mannerly won’t bowl you over. It is a series of small pleasures You will laugh, and probably shed a tear for the Mrs. Mannerlys of the world, who were unable — or unwilling — to change as the world changed around them.
The Merruimack Repertory Theatre production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Mrs. Mannerly.” Directed by Mark Shanahan. At the Nancy Donahue Theatre at Liberty Hall through Nov. 17. http://www.mrt.org.

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