It’s not really Norman’s fault that his wife finds him boring and his sisters-in-law think he’s sexy and charming. The librarian simply has deeply hidden passions that bubble to the surface and seduce them. It’s not like he’s doing it on purpose, he just being himself.
All of that fervor boils over during a family weekend in the English countryside in True North Theatre Company’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Table Manners,” being performed in the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre at the University of Maine. The play is the first of a trilogy called “The Norman Conquests” about a family of three siblings, Annie, Reg and Ruth, and their spouses/suitors.
Even this fine cast can’t keep “Table Manners” from showing its age. Set in 1974, the play, like all the others Ayckbourn wrote in the 1970s and 1980s, is about the changing social and class structure in England. It’s also about the sexual revolution and the women’s movement, and the people left behind in its wake.
It is hard to pinpoint one reason the show fell flat on Friday, opening night. Maybe a comedy needs an audience of more than 25 people to get the laughter rolling. Perhaps women arguing over which is most fulfilling — a career or being a mother — is more perplexing than amusing in an age when they can have both.
Director Tricia A. Hobbs, the production manager and technical director at Penobscot Theatre Company, gathered a talented, experienced cast that creates a family full of foibles. Her dining room set uses the university’s former sheep barn nicely, although keeping all the plates, crystal glasses and silverware in a drawer does seem odd at first, but a china cabinet would have been too tall for some audience members, which is on three sides of the stage in the round space, to see over.
Tyler Costigan as Norman is the true star of the show. He is proving to be one of the regions most versatile performers. Costigan is equally adept at drama — “The Lion in Winter” and “House of Yes” — as he is at comedy.
His ability to inhabit a character and carry a show is reminiscent of Bob Libbey, who 15 years ago regularly performed with Ten Bucks Theatre and Penobscot Theatre companies. Like Libbey, Costigan uses his long arms and legs to mine a script for every possible physical laugh. He also consistently gives energetic performances that sometimes lift a script above its flaws.
The only familial love on display in “Table Manners” is between Annie and Reg. Angela Bonacasa and Tellis Coolong give genuine and honest performances as the brother and sister. Their reminiscences about their childhood ring true and they convey a special kind of tenderness toward each other than other characters are capable of showing. Theirs is the only honest relationship in the play and these actors capture it perfectly.
Holly Costar as Reg’s wife Sarah, Jenny Hancock as Norman’s wife Ruth and Jake Sherburne as Tom, Annie’s would-be suitor, complete the cast. All three perform well. Sherburne is particularly fine at portraying a man of so few words he’s incapable of expressing a feeling.
Why this cast could not wring more laughter out of one of Ayckbourn’s most well-known and best loved works forever will remain a mystery. Maybe it’s just too, too English for a 21st century American audience, and maybe the manners and mores of the 1970s fare better on display in a museum rather than on a stage.
True North Theatre’s production of “Table Manners” will run through June 24 at the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre, 6 Sebago Road, at the University of Maine. For information, visit truenorththeatre.org or call 619-4833.
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