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‘Mrs. Mannerly’ helps busy playwright get his act together

Phyllis Wright, left, and Barbara June Patterson in "Mrs. Mannerly."
Photo by Shannon Buchda
Phyllis Wright, left, and Barbara June Patterson in “Mrs. Mannerly.”

Jeffrey Hatcher might not be the hardest-working man in show business, but he certainly ranks near the top. The Twin Cities-based playwright has crafted dozens of shows, both original works and numerous adaptations.

While a certain amount of notoriety can come from adapting diverse works such as “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “The Government Inspector” (the latter opening in July at the Guthrie), sometimes the playwright needs to stretch his creative wings.

“I do so many adaptations – and I hope I do them well – but they aren’t always ideas I would have had,” Hatcher says.

This need to explore his own ideas has led to a long and fruitful relationship with the Illusion Theater. The latest example of the collaboration, “Mrs. Mannerly,” opens Friday at the theater’s downtown Minneapolis space.

“We’ve developed a good working style over the years and there’s a comfort level,” Hatcher says. “That’s terribly important. They won’t produce anything I write, but I know that if we do, we will have the right kind of a production and rehearsal process.”

Hatcher first developed the play for last year’s Fresh Ink series, an annual summer event where a number of new plays are developed for staged readings at the Illusion Theater.

“The idea of the play came backwards,” Hatcher says. “I wanted to write something for the two actresses (Barbara June Patterson and Phyllis Wright). For inspiration, I thought of the manners teacher I had as a kid. She was a very theatrical woman I knew in Ohio. I embellished it, but it does depict the world as I remember it.”

The play revolves around an etiquette class for 7-year-olds, in which one student in the class stands out — the one with a briefcase fit for a spy. 

There’s nothing like a deadline
Developing the show for Fresh Ink, which celebrates its 21st edition this summer, also gave Hatcher a deadline. So he had a topic and he knew when he had to have something for the director and actors. He even had a subject. Now it was just a matter of writing.

Having the actors in mind definitely helped, Hatcher notes. “I had this idea for a long time, but I didn’t know what form it would take. Phyllis is protean in the way she can shift from one character to another.”

So Wright got the “and the rest” roles, while Hatcher kept Patterson in mind for the oh-so-proper manners instructor.

“It’s a perfect match,” says Hatcher, who saw both performers in “Murderers” in 2005 at Illusion. “Barbara can play the strange old lady and Phyllis can play the rest, including me as a young kid.”

Illusion founder Michael Robins directed both productions of the show and has found that the Fresh Ink process helped the show considerably.

“We really worked on it during Fresh Ink,” Robins says. “One of the things that we came to understand during that staging was that the show was a one-act, not a two act. Now we are thinking more along the lines of a 75-minute one-act play. We also worked on things that didn’t work the first time and fine-tuned things. I am a firm believer in the 60 percent rule — if at least 60 percent of the play isn’t there at first, it won’t ever be there.”

Hatcher agrees with shifting the play from two acts to one. “Act breaks require a kind of cliffhanger. This is a memory play with a light, delicate air about it. When we stopped after an hour, it stopped the momentum. It was the kind of play that needed to keep rumbling forward.”

These developments are one of the reasons Hatcher has presented a number of shows at Fresh Ink. “You can fall on your face, but that’s where you can learn about the show,” he says.

There’s one other reason for removing the break, Hatcher notes. “Phyllis and Barbara June are on the stage for most of the show. If you have an act break, the audience knows the actors were able to relax for 15 minutes. If you take that away the audience appreciates the actors. They know how hard they are working out there.”

What: “Mrs. Mannerly”
When: March 12-April 14
Where: Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Tickets: $10-$20
Phone: 612-339-4944


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