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Etiquette and epithets - ‘Table Manners’

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Holly Costar, left, and Angela Bonacasa star as Sarah and Annie in True North Theatre's production of "Table Manners." Holly Costar, left, and Angela Bonacasa star as Sarah and Annie in True North Theatre's production of "Table Manners." (photo courtesy True North Theatre/Chris Goetting, RCS Maine)

ORONO – Family gatherings can be a real pain, but they can also lead to some unexpected fun – just so long as you mind your manners.

Orono-based theater company True North Theatre is giving you a chance to join in one such family gathering. Their production of Alan Ayckbourn’s beloved comedy “Table Manners” is taking place at the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre on the University of Maine campus. Directed by Tricia A. Hobbs, the show runs through June 24.

“Table Manners” – one of a trilogy of plays written by Ayckbourn in the early 1970s known collectively as “The Norman Conquests” – tells a story of six people intertwined by blood, marriage, proximity or some combination therein. Each of them seeks real connection, yet they struggle to determine exactly what that means. The complexity of the interpersonal dynamics at play greatly complicates the circumstances, leading to mistakes, misunderstandings … and some of the most genteel mayhem you’ll ever see onstage.

Annie (Angela Bonacasa) is living in the country house in which she grew up, serving as the primary caregiver to her ailing mother. Her closest companion is Tom (Jake Sherburne), the simple and slow-moving local vet who lives nearby. He visits often and is nice enough, but his obliviousness to the bigger picture proves somewhat frustrating to Annie.

She’s got big plans for a weekend away – so big that she has asked her sister-in-law Sarah (Holly Costar) and her brother Reg (Tellis Coolong) to come to the house and look after Mother while she takes her holiday. However, there’s more to it than one might expect. You see, she’s not going on holiday alone … and there’s more than a whiff of scandal about her choice of companion.

Her fellow traveler is to be her brother-in-law Norman (Tyler Costigan), a librarian lothario who is, well, more librarian than lothario, despite his best efforts. When Sarah finds out, she is aghast at the impropriety of it all – not to mention immediately determined to make sure that this particular tryst never takes place.

And so it is that when Norman shows up, it quickly becomes clear that this little escape to East Grinstead isn’t going to happen – particularly when he discovers that his type-A wife Ruth (Jenny Hancock) has been alerted to his presence and invited to join the fun.

Thus we have a collection of six people, any combination of whom carries real potential for magnificent awkwardness in their interactions. And when you take into account the fact that there’s not much food and a whole lot of booze? Things are going to get honest. And weird.

Suffice it to say, seduction is pretty much out of the question. Not that Norman’s going to let that stop him from trying.

Few playwrights can match Ayckbourn in the wit department; his dialogue crackles with cleverness and velocity. “Table Manners” is the sort of drawing room comedy (well, dining room comedy) that you don’t often see anymore, one driven by gentle charm rather than slamming doors. Not that it lacks in farcical elements, but even at its loudest, it luxuriates in low-key pleasures.

The temptation to shoehorn in those broader elements has to be there, but director Hobbs resists admirably. There are moments of slapstick physicality, to be sure, but they’re not egregious ones; rather, they serve to underline the relationship-driven comedy that serves as the soul of the piece. Big and silly has its place; Hobbs does a first-rate job in finding it. When things get goofy, it is because they must.

In its relatively brief history, True North has already shown a knack for assembling solid ensembles. They usually seem to be able to pick out the right pieces for whatever puzzle they’ve got; this is no exception. And this is a true ensemble piece – no one is really the star (though one could make an argument for Norman as the lead and there’s little doubt that Annie is the emotional center of the show).

Costigan endows Norman with a twitchy, sweaty charm that manages to be endearing while also reeking somewhat of desperation. It’s a strange dance, but Costigan knows all the steps; he’s on point verbally and displays a knack for comedic physicality. Bonacasa is best known in these parts as a director; according to her bio, she hasn’t been onstage like this in some time. You’d never know it; in her hands, Annie is sweet and vulnerable while also flashing a sharp, snarky edge. One hopes she doesn’t wait so long to get back onstage the next time.

There’s a brittleness to Costar’s portrayal of Sarah that works wonderfully; we shouldn’t find a woman this close to the edge this funny, but Costar makes it look easy. Coolong as Reg is delightful; he finds ways to subtly color his jollity, spanning the spectrum from completely genuine to utterly forced. The back-and-forth chemistry between Costar and Coolong is particularly fun to watch. Hancock is all high-octane imperiousness as Ruth, filling the space with dismissiveness every time she speaks. And Sherburne manages a deceptively difficult feat – he makes Tom slow without being dumb. That’s tough, but he does it with aplomb.

Hobbs does double-duty here, designing the set as well as directing; it’s a lovely representation of a country dining room. Scout Hough’s lighting work is spot-on, as per usual; subtle and effective. Claire Bolduc’s costumes, Katie Guzzi’s sound, props by Belinda Hobbs – it all fits together. More well-selected pieces to the puzzle.

“Table Manners” is another delight from True North Theatre, bright and just the teeniest bit bawdy; a lovely showcase for some of our area’s talented theatrical artists.

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