Since Manatee Players opened their Kiwanis Studio Theater last year, many of the productions have made the limitations of the small space apparent.
"Morning's at Seven," which opened Thursday, is perhaps the first that makes use of the strength of the space and shows why intimate theater can be distinctively effective.
Paul Osborn's quaint and often hilarious play is a treat, and its appeal comes largely from the charming and very odd characters he's given us.
In the studio theater -- the people at Manatee Players don't like to call it a "black box," which is the more common name -- there's a sense of a relationship between the audience and the characters. You fell as if you're part of their self-contained world. It wouldn't feel the same in a proscenium theater.
There's more to the appeal of the show than just the space, of course. Director Pam Wiley and her nine-person cast take a wry and dry approach to the characters' quirks and the playwright's words.
They get a lot of help from Ralph Nurmela, who designed the lovely set, lighting designer Patrick Bedell and costume designer Jean Letarte.
The story revolves around four retirement-age sisters who live near each other in a small town in 1938. Nurmela's set is the back porch of two of their adjacent houses. Homer, the adult son of one of the sisters comes to visit, and for the first time brings his fiancée to whom he's been engaged for many years.
It's not much of a story, thought there are some secrets that are hinted at and finally revealed.
The joy of the show comes nor from the plot, but from the quirky characters. They're not especially bright, most of them, but Osborn, director Wiley and the actors treat them affectionately. There are plenty of laughs, and the characters are never played as buffoons.
There's an added spoonful of charm in the quaint depiction of the era, as when the sisters and their husbands repeatedly wonder if there's "something going on" between 40-year-old Homer and the woman he's been engaged to for almost a decade.
The whole cast is good, and every single cast member has at least a couple of shining moments. The most consistently strong performances come from Ken Basque as Homer, Joseph Allen Smith as his uncle Theodore, Kristi Hibschman as Homer's wide-eyed fiancée and Erica Drezek as one of the sisters.
The play and the production are not flawless. The play's two-and-a-half hours long, and it would benefit from being at least 30 minutes shorter. And the rapid resolution in the final few minutes feels forced after the loping pace of the rest of the play.
As great as it is to see this play in such a small space, there are some attendant problems. Director Wiley often doesn't have room for all her characters to fit naturally around the stage, and because of that there are more than a few awkwardly staged moments.
But in general, the pace, the writing and the performances are terrific, and the characters are so warm and so quirky that you almost miss them once the play is over and have to leave their little world.
Details: Through Oct. 5, Bradenton Kiwianis Studio Theater at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $26. Information: 941-748-5875, manateeplayers.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.