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Family Values

Theatre Central embraces Table Manners

by Adrienne Martini

My Christmas Eve memories are inexorably tied to fish and opera.

Some background may be in order here. In case you haven't figured it out already by my last name, my father's family is very, very Italian. I was raised on a steady diet of marinara sauce and white pizza, with the occasional heap of escarole thrown in for good measure.

On Christmas Eve, it is traditional for the whole Martini/Martino/Mastandrea clan to gather and eat seven kinds of seafood, drink lots of red wine (either homemade or store bought), then gambol down to the church for midnight Mass. A strange competition exists among the men of the family to see who can wear the most hideous Christmas-themed tie, which I strongly suspect is a modern addition and one that would appall the folks still back in Naples.

These celebrations are, without fail, full of enough weltschmertz to make Puccini proud. Emotions run high, fueled by potent liquor, too much calamari, and dysfunction. For the uninitiated, it is terrifying, loud, full of flamboyant hand gestures, and, occasionally, sharp arguments conducted in Italian. But those who know the tradition of the opera fall into this circus' embrace, wine firmly in hand.

So it is with families. What looks like ribald insanity to the outsider is actually what is familiar and comforting to the insider. Ethnicity is irrelevant—although Italians do it with better food, especially when compared to the Scots-Irish. And so it goes as well in British playwright Alan Ayckbourn's Table Manners, a comedy about the foibles of families.

In truth, Manners is part of a larger cycle of plays called The Norman Conquests, a series of three interlocked comedies about the same family on the same weekend in the same house, with the other two being Living Together and Round and Round the Garden. In Ayckbourn's universe, when one character leaves Manners' dining room he or she is joining the action in the garden or the living room. In an ideal world, all three plays would be performed in rep, with each section being played sequentially. But, as we know, ideal goes right out the window when families get involved.

Theatre Central—the little theater that could down on Gay Street—has wisely decided to stage just Manners, which is a great idea given the limitations of space, time, and energy. Instead, all of director/producer Mark Moffett's efforts have gone into this production. And his concentrated approach pays off.

Of course, it helps that his cast is full of familiar faces, who are, in a way, part of the larger Knoxville theater family. Margy Ragsdale—who gave a lovely performance in last fall's Talley's Folly—is charming as ever as the harried, mousy, single sister of this clan. Windie Wilson is Sarah, her boisterous, domineering sister-in-law who is shocked by this family's quirks, the same ones that leave her husband Reg, played by Rick Patton, laughing and at-home. These antics revolve largely around Norman, a lothario out to conquer all of the bedable females within a five-mile radius, including his sister-in-law Annie. Norman is like a modern day Puck (Shakespearean, not Real World) brought to impish life by the talented and immensely watchable Ed White.

All goes hilariously well—with Sarah histrionically griping, Annie compulsively enabling, Reg hysterically giggling, and Norman endlessly wooing—until the arrival of Tom, the would-be stuffed-shirt suitor to Annie, and Ruth, Norman's career-driven wife. Mark Palmer is a master of understated stage business and characterization as Tom while Belinda Burleson simply flutters about the stage with a London-by-way-of-Long-Island accent as Ruth. After their arrival, the true family fun can begin.

And, really, that's what it all boils down to, in both the plot of the play and the problems of production. Theatre Central's space is intimate, to say the least, and its technique, taken as a whole, can lean a bit too heavy on scattershot comedy and too light on the actual sub-text of the script—but that's what we've know and love about this family. This cast revels in what could be chaos and turns the show into a fast-paced bundle of energy that both embraces and transcends its location, magnifying Ayckbourn's theme. We simply couldn't ask for anything more.

March 16, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 11
© 2000 Metro Pulse