Mrs. Mannerly might feel it’s a bit much, almost immodest: Jeffrey Hatcher has not one, not two, but three plays opening in the Boston area.
Hatcher’s autobiographical “Mrs. Mannerly” plays the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell through Nov. 17. Also on stage, at the Stoneham Theatre through Nov. 10, is Hatcher’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.”
And from Nov. 8-23, the fledgling company Simple Machine will present Hatcher’s adaptation of Henry James’s ghostly “The Turn of the Screw,” directed by M. Bevin O’Gara, with 10 performances divided between the 1859-60 Gibson House Museum in the Back Bay and the 1853 Taylor House bed-and-breakfast in Jamaica Plain (details at simplemachinetheatre.com).
It’s an unusual confluence for someone whose last name isn’t Shakespeare, but on the phone, Minnesota resident Hatcher doesn’t sound too impressed with himself.
“It’s a kick,” he says mildly. “I tend not to know about [productions] before they happen. In Merrimack’s case I do, because I know the director and all that, but with a lot of the others I tend to find out about it afterward, or if I happen to Google something. ‘Oh, there it is.’ ”
“There are not enough hours in a person’s life to see all the plays that Jeffrey is having performed right now,” says “Mrs. Mannerly” director Mark Shanahan, laughing.
Shanahan (who is not the Globe’s Names columnist) has both acted in and directed plays by Hatcher previously. “He’s also able to take on an Edgar Allan Poe or a Sherlock Holmes tale and dig into things with a really personal touch, just as he is with ‘Mrs. Mannerly,’ which is really autobiographical,” the director says.
“Mrs. Mannerly” is a tartly funny “memory play” loosely drawn from the playwright’s youth in Steubenville, Ohio. At 10, the fictional Jeffrey has become a bit of a handful, and he finds himself learning proper behavior under Mrs. Mannerly’s tutelage. Hatcher has written their story as a two-hander — a play for two actors. In Lowell, Broadway veteran Jan Neuberger plays Mrs. Mannerly, while Matthew Schneck plays Jeffrey and more than a dozen other characters.
In the 1960s, when the play takes place, the skills being taught in classes like Mrs. Mannerly’s are fast becoming obsolete.
“It was preparing us for a world that was already long dead,” Hatcher says. “The world of tea parties and proper dancing, not too close. But also the lessons of decency and politeness, and those things stick with you even if you don’t remember what fork to use anymore.”
Hatcher says he was perhaps even younger than Jeffrey when he took the real-life class from a Mrs. Kirk, circa 1964 or ’65, although he has chosen to set the play in 1967. “Either way, you’re in Vietnam, you’re post-Kennedy assassination . . . but we’re being prepared for pre-World War I behavior. I think very soon after that, the manners classes ended.”
Once he starts talking about his own schooling in etiquette, Hatcher warms to the memory — and its ironies.
“I saw a photograph of a bunch of us against the backdrop of what looks like an English sitting room, but you can tell it’s a backdrop because the camera’s a little too far back, and you can see we’re inside a much less interesting room, which was the second-floor rumpus room of the YMCA,” he says. “So there was always the tension, obviously comedic, of trying to enforce these almost 19th-century English rules inside a world that was very American, Midwestern, small-town Ohio, that was breaking into the 1960s.”
So why is Hatcher produced so often, besides the fact that he has more than two dozen plays on his resumé? “I think what Jeff is smartest at is, he puts characters in their worst-case scenarios, and you have to watch them get out of it,” says Shanahan. “When you have characters at their most precarious moment, audiences can’t help caring about these people.”
In “Mrs. Mannerly,” that means a 10-year-old having an identity crisis, Shanahan says. “Young Jeffrey is at a point where he’s not sure who he’s going to become, and into his life walks this mentor, someone who teaches him a little about how he might grow into the best possible version of himself.”
The danger is that this will become just a heartwarming, aw-shucks Midwestern tale a la “A Christmas Story.” But a clear-eyed poignancy keeps it from kitsch, at least on the page. The 1960s setting also offers the opportunity for lots of pop culture jokes.
“The next night was Halloween, and I decided to go trick-or-treating as Ironside,” Jeffrey tells the audience. “When Bill opened the door and saw me in my wheelchair, he said, ‘Look, it’s one of Jerry’s Kids!’ and dropped a bottle of airplane vodka into my bag.”
“Jekyll,” directed by Caitlin Lowans, has a casting trick just the opposite of the one in “Mrs. Mannerly.” Benjamin Evett makes his Stoneham debut as the good doctor. But, as written by Hatcher, the rest of the cast members take turns playing Hyde. You might think he was underlining the idea that both good and evil live in all of us. Hatcher has a more craft-centric answer.
“Two reasons,” Hatcher said in an e-mail. “1) Theatrically. I’d never seen it done before. 2) Dramatically. It struck me that the drug Jekyll takes would have a different effect on him each time he took it, given such variables as dosage, mood, tolerance and resistance, etc.; so the manifestations of Hyde wouldn’t be uniform. Like variations on acid use.”
DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from the Robert Louis Stevenson novella
Directed by Caitlin Lowans
Presented by Stoneham Theatre
At: Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main St., through Nov. 10.
Tickets, $45-$50, 781-279-2200, www.stonehamtheatre.org
Joel Brown can be reached at email@example.com.