That a living, breathing human soul is standing just a few feet away, near enough to see and hear but with enough distance that we may quietly avert our eyes if we wish, is a big reason live theatre can affect us as it does.
In such a quiet, comfortable place as a small theatre, where one’s attention is disturbed only by that which the tranquil mind conjures, the full embodiment of a captivating story, and a deeper response to the characters in it, can be thoroughly enjoyed, more so than reading about them in a novel, or a newspaper.
When characters are finely drawn by the playwright, and then fully enlivened by the actors, the show will delight, and the audience will walk away glad to have had seats when the curtain opened, and all the way through to the moment it closed.
For the past two weeks, the Dixie Theatre’s 17th professional season has presented, in repertory, a pair of plays that provide just such an experience. They offer a passing opportunity, especially rare in places such as here where stage plays are infrequent, to enjoy a fine example of theatre’s power.
This weekend is the final one for the shows, both comedies with an underlying, more than occasionally glimpsed, layer of sadness.
“Mrs. Mannerly” takes place entirely in the imagination of the author, Jeffrey Hatcher, who reflects back nearly 40 years to the time he took a manners class in his Rust Belt childhood home of Steubenville, Ohio. Presented without interruption, with its two characters on stage nearly entirely throughout, the play features the lead actor (Eric Folks) as the narrator Jeffrey, who brings to life seven other characters – his father, a coarse and comic boor; his flamboyant drama teacher, Bill Crossky, who obsesses on all things showbiz; four of his classmates, Chucky the annoying suck-up, Jamie the inquisitive and sexually curious, Kim the Cold War paranoid, and Ralph the sluggish slob; and Patsy, the sexpot who is Jeffrey’s only rival to earning a perfect score for etiquette at the end-of-the-year matron’s ball.
As the teacher, Mrs. Mannerly, actress Cleo Holladay shows she commands the physical energy, range of emotion and well-crafted subtlety that has come from her more than 60 years as a professional actress. The sternness of her classroom persona, the impetuousness with which she snatches Jeffrey’s tuition check, the comfort she conveys in a dive bar, all testify to a vintage, multi-layered performance by a woman gracefully entering the twilight of her years in the footlights.
As strong a performance as Holladay provides, the “iron man” of the stage is young Folks, a graduate of Otterbein College’s esteemed theatre program, which also produced David Caldwell, who directed both shows. Folks is a bundle of manic energy that complements Holladay’s frosty self-control, and then, hours later, he ably steps into a completely contrasting place, the mythical northern Maine town of Almost.
It is in that second show, either later or earlier on Saturday, that Folks shows his gifts for elongating the pain of love and loss, and unearthing the quaking of our hearts, that we all try to hide as best we can. The show features nearly a dozen separate, and softly desperate, scenes, each at the same time on a moonless Friday evening during a Maine winter. Folks is in about half of them, playing heartbroken former lovers, frustrated married men, bewildered suitors, with smoothness and familiarity.
His equal are the three actors who share in the energy of “Almost, Maine,” Caldwell, who is featured as an average Joe in a couple of the scenes; Caitlin Morris, a fellow Otterbein graduate; and Dixie Partington, who together with Jerry Hall produced the shows for the Dixie Theatre Foundation, which she heads.
Morris, originally from St. Petersburg, is making her second appearance at the Dixie, and displays a talent for opening the emotional passageways of “the girl next door.” She is a pleasure to watch, whether she is giddily cavorting on a skimobile, or holding her ground skittishly on ice skates against a distant husband. Partington offers a sadder, more poignant persona in her performance, evoking the pain of a long-forsaken love, or the confusion of a girlfriend who shows up at her boyfriend’s doorstep with plastic trash bags full of “the love he gave her.” Caldwell, the director, anchors his shows with a solid grasp of the men he manifests.
As usual, the Dixie doesn’t present an elaborate set, there is no backdrop to evoke Steubenville, or the winter “wonderland” of Almost. What there is, in full bloom, is superb acting that reminds us of the exquisite power of live theatre.