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DORSET >> Take a highly acclaimed trilogy. Find three theatre companies in the same state willing to tackle it all in one summer. Cast six superb actors at the hands of three different directors. Add in a healthy dose of hard work and planning.
The resulting brew is the current comic run of Alan Ayckbourn's "The Norman Conquests" trilogy, whose second quaff, "Table Manners," comes to a head at Dorset Theatre Festival and the most capable direction of Evan Yionoulis.
The action moves to the dining room of a vicarage-type house in Sussex during a weekend in July 1973. The trilogy's first installment, "Living Together," took place in the living room, and was produced in May, at Northern Stage in White River Junction. We are reacquainted with Norman (Richard Gallagher), his wife Ruth (Ashton Heyl), her brother Reg (Mark Light-Orr) and his wife Sarah (Caitlin Clouthier), Ruth's sister Annie (Jenni Putney), and Tom (David Mason), Annie's next-door-neighbor.
Norman, who has already had one tryst with Annie, works to take her away on a weekend to East Grinstead. While enamored with the roguish and cavalier Norman, Annie still holds out hope for the more stable yet meek Tom to actually make a move in her direction. Meanwhile, Ruth seems indifferent to all given her career burdens – and the absence of her glasses. Reg and Sarah are wrapped up in their own near neuroses, all which intertwine with the silliness portrayed by the rest of the clan.
While the show is funny, it's not a farce in the strictest sense; Ayckbourn gives us many poignant and thought provoking moments not tied to a joke. Still, it's clear Ms. Yionoulis, who sat just behind this critic dutifully taking notes all evening, had everyone on stage primed to deliver the goods - and yes, laughs.
Putney was a most endearing Annie, especially when in her casual garb. One could almost taste her dreams. Annie's humanity and yearning to belong to someone were palpable thanks to Putney's heart-warming charm, readily on display throughout.
Clouthier's Sarah succeeded wildly in her off-the-scale pretensions and obsessions. In a piece of excellent physical comedy, we should all be so lucky so as to invite Ms. Clouthier over for dinner – jut to see her fold those cloth napkins.
David Mason's Tom was fantastically underwhelming. If we didn't know any better, someone would wager a few dollars that Mr. Mason might have a little echo of Tony Shaloub's Monk in his quirkiness.
Light-Orr's Reg had just the right personality edge mixed with superficiality that made him specious but still a family essential – which is exactly what was required in this play. Mr. Light-Orr perfected his affected body movement on stage in a way that complemented Reg's temperament, and made us squirm.
Gallagher took on Norman with something of a schoolboy-cum-Errol Flynn naughtiness. He also left us with the sneaky suspicion that he was holding something in reserve, perhaps for the trilogy's third installment. It was easy to be wowed by Mr. Gallagher, and yes, to roll your eyes – but not too much.
Finally, Heyl as Ruth was about as close to stealing the show as one could get, yet without detracting from her fellow cast members. With her Xena Warrior Princess presence, yet a disdain for anything she couldn't be bothered with, Ms. Heyl delighted us as a most stereotypical – but hilarious – manifestation of the stiff British upper lip. Nicely done, Madam.
The show ran about two and a quarter hours, with a 15 minute intermission included in that total.
David L. Arsenau's set was a sumptuous feast of both indoors and the view outdoors. Lights by Stuart Duke and sound by Jane Shaw were on the mark all evening; the shifts in daylight were particularly majestic. Costumes by Charles Schoonmaker complemented not only the period, but also the humor of the moment. See Norman's pajamas.
Ayckbourn's trilogy by three Vermont regional theatres in the same summer is historic. The series moves on to Weston Playhouse in late July where this marvelous cast will take their talents out to the garden.
But while they are in Dorset, "Table Manners" is a must-see. The production is tight, the direction thorough, and the performances on stage inspired. That, plus, there's nothing better than a good laugh.
"Table Manners" will run through July 2 at Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Rd., Dorset. For tickets and info call 802-867-2223 or visit: dorsettheatrefestival.org.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Assn. (ATCA)