Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and
Mrs. Mannerly

Also see Nancy's reviews of The Power of Duff

Benjamin Evett
Photo by David Costa
Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher is no stranger to Merrimack Repertory Theatre audiences and this month his works can be found simultaneously on two stages north of Boston. The utterly delightful memory play Mrs. Mannerly runs through November 17 at MRT in Lowell, while his adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde casts its evil spell through November 10 at Stoneham Theatre. It's a wonderful opportunity to experience Hatcher's talent range while patronizing a couple of venues in the 'burbs.

Thanks to Director Caitlin Lowans and the collaborative talents of scenic designer David Towlun, sound designer Nathan Leigh, costume designer Rachel Padula-Shufelt, and lighting designer Jeff Adelberg, the stage at the Stoneham Theatre is enveloped in mystery and foreboding, drawing us into the dark tale of one man's exploration of his sinister instincts. Dr. Henry Jekyll (Benjamin Evett) is a study in duplicity, both to himself and to his closest colleagues, as he tries to differentiate the mind and the brain in order to cure mankind's evil tendencies. His research releases his alter ego Mr. Edward Hyde into the world and it becomes his struggle, like Dr. Frankenstein before him, to try to control the monster he has created.

At once interesting and baffling, Hatcher has chosen to have one actor play Jekyll, while other members of the cast take turns playing Hyde. Dale Place, Nick Sulfaro, and Cheryl McMahon have brief appearances in the role, but Alexander Platt has the bulk of Hyde's stage time and, arguably the best of it. He captures the menace, the paranoia and the evil grin, as well as an underlying hint of sadness and confusion. Physically, he matches well with Evett and I most looked forward to his moments as Hyde. Platt also plays Jekyll's jovial Scottish colleague Dr. H.K. Lanyon and does a good job of distinguishing between his two characters.

McMahon is the beneficiary of gender blind casting as Evett's nemesis Sir Danvers Carew, as well as the police inspector investigating a rash of nasty murders. Once you get past the fact that she is playing a he, her performance is quite natural and her characters unfeminine. Sulfaro is devilish as Hyde, but totally proper and mild-mannered as Jekyll's manservant Poole. As Jekyll's friend and colleague Gabriel Utterson, Place has a dignified and professional demeanor, although he betrays some skepticism. More than the others, Place is given the thankless task of talking at the audience through the fourth wall, narrating portions of the story that has the unwanted effect of breaking the dramatic flow. Knowing that Hatcher's writing is capable of showing the story line, I wish that he had eschewed the use of the shorthand telling technique.

Esme Allen is radiant as Elizabeth Jelkes, the woman who haunts Jekyll's dreams and, as much as possible, tames the beast in Hyde. She has great chemistry with Platt, easily allowing us to suspend our disbelief that a woman could fall for Hyde, and is a strong presence in a testosterone-laden ensemble (and I mean that as a compliment to McMahon). Evett's portrayal of Jekyll is far-ranging as he morphs from genteel, principled scientist/gentleman to dissembling, maniacal murderer. However, he never strays into caricature, showing the heart and humanity of his character so we don't lose our compassion for him and his struggle. Credit dialect coach Danny Bryck for the consistent British accents, and fight choreographer Ted Hewlett for providing dynamic, realistic action, presumably without any real harm.

With very little scenery (one large, red door that pivots is central) and the strategic use of props (props master Joe Stallone), Towlun successfully suggests drawing rooms, offices, a laboratory, a private surgery, a morgue, a dissecting theater, a bed-sitting room, a park, a hotel room, and various streets and alleys. Adelberg's interplay of light, darkness and shadows works well in terms of creating the appropriate atmosphere, but often obscures the actors' faces when one casts a shadow on another. Other than that, Lowans' blocking is well done, especially in the scenes where the dual personas of Jekyll and Hyde struggle to take control of the one man, and she builds the tension in spite of Hatcher's reliance upon narration.

Jan Neuberger and Matthew Schneck
Photo by Meghan Moore
Hatcher obliterates the fourth wall in Mrs. Mannerly as he takes the audience back to his youth in Steubenville, Ohio, in 1967 to recount his experiences as a ten-year-old boy enrolled in a manners class. Directed by Mark Shanahan, the two-hander features Jan Neuberger as Helen Anderson Kirk, aka Mrs. Mannerly, and Matthew Schneck as Jeffrey and a handful of children who populate the makeshift classroom in the local YMCA. It is set in the present and in Jeffrey's memory, and runs a breezy 90 minutes even as it travels back and forth in time.

Grown up Jeffrey is our tour guide to the past in the manner of Ralphie in A Christmas Story and Kevin in television's "The Wonder Years," infusing the storytelling with a sense of personal nostalgia and warm remembrances. He paints a loving, whimsical portrait of the formidable Mrs. Mannerly and she appears before our eyes, just as he describes her. Schneck is an affable, average adult male talking to a roomful of adult men and women when he suddenly and convincingly transforms into a pre-pubescent boy. Aided by the soundtrack of '60s music, the evocative old furnishings and cinderblock walls, and his portrayals of the quirky characteristics of the other kids, Schneck takes us along for the ride. Once we have been introduced to the five boys and girls, his posture, his tone of voice, a scrunchy face and a shift in attitude let us know at once who he is "doing."

While Schneck conjures up a passel of playmates, Neuberger inflates Helen Kirk from a bunch of anecdotes and memories into a living, breathing woman of valor, worthy of being remembered for the impact she had on Jeffrey's life. Seen through the haze of memory over four decades, it would be understandable to want to show the polished version of the proper lady who taught etiquette to the children of Steubenville for thirty years. However, Hatcher does not shy away from the mysterious, darker side of her personality that intrigued him as a boy, and Neuberger's dive into those depths is poignant and funny. Ultimately, the understanding gleaned when Mrs. Mannerly shares that part of her life leaves the greatest impression on Jeffrey and hits home with us, too.

There are many lessons to take home from Hatcher's play and Mrs. Mannerly's class, although it may seem as if times have changed too much. However, good manners never go out of style, and saying please and thank you still matters. Even in the age of social networking, it reminds us of the importance of civility and that there is a socially correct way to do things. The only evil in Mrs. Mannerly's class is bad manners. Too bad she wasn't around to teach Dr. Jekyll a thing or two.

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, performances through November 10 at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, MA; Box Office 781-279-2200 or Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from the novella "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson, Directed by Caitlin Lowans; Scenic Design, David Towlun; Sound Design, Nathan Leigh; Costume Design, Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Lighting Design, Jeff Adelberg; Production Stage Manager, Rachel Policare; Fight Choreographer, Ted Hewlett; Dialect Coach, Danny Bryck.

Cast (in alphabetical order): Esme Allen, Benjamin Evett, Cheryl McMahon, Dale Place, Alexander Platt, Nick Sulfaro

Mrs. Mannerly, performances through November 17 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, Directed by Mark Shanahan; Scenic Designer, James J. Fenton; Costume Designer, Deb Newhall; Lighting Designer, Martin Vreeland; Sound Designer, Sean Hagerty; Stage Manager, Bree Sherry; Assistant Stage Manager, Peter Crewe

Cast (in order of appearance): Jan Neuberger, Matthew Schneck

- Nancy Grossman

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