Cast Chemistry Shines in “Steel Magnolias”

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

steel-mag-cast-photo-cropA BEAUTIFUL, IRREPRESSIBLE, and beloved young woman makes selfish choices that impact her family and community, while uttering lines like, “I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful, than a lifetime of nothing special.” Steel Magnolias, now at The Charleston Acting Studio on Folly Road, is a story about a group of women in a Louisiana beauty salon which deal with relationships, pregnancy, religion, and wedding day color-schemes… but if you think this is a play just for women, you are sorely mistaken. It made me laugh! It made me furious! And it would take a person with a stronger resolve than mine to remain dry-eyed during the final scenes of this show.

The reasons for the play’s enduring popularity are evident. Its sharp comic banter—delivered with great timing and lilting Southern inflections—is inseparable from its heartbreaking story, based upon the author’s real-life family tragedy. The difference between maudlin sentimentality and authentic feeling is an all-important distinction understood by director Sheri Grace Wenger, who coaxes honest, believable performances from her cast.

Playwright Robert Harling’s lovely snapshot of life in a small Louisiana town features six women. The single set is Truvy’s Beauty Parlor, a local sanctuary, located beneath the former carport of her house in the fictional Chinquapin. Presiding over the group with a mama hen’s open-hearted ferocity is beautician Truvy, played by Suzie Hallatt. Hallatt’s character anchors the ensemble with sassy, heart-of-gold white-trashiness.

As the show begins, she has hired Annelle, a lost soul whom she is practically ready to adopt. Annelle, under-played masterfully by Joanna Cretella, is new in town and obviously has a story to tell. This is a role often taken too far… but Cretella stays quirky, mysterious, and lovable throughout. She manages to keep her mostly silent Annelle busy and still part of the scenes while working on hair—even though her overly impressionable character is all over the map. Emily Giant, as town belle and bride-to-be Shelby, turns in the most realistic performance, in a cast of nicely realistic performances.

Shelby’s struggle with diabetes drives the play’s emotional arc, and Giant’s is a teeth-clenchingly sympathetic portrait of determination to lead a normal life despite the objections of her stoic mom. And that role M’Lynn—a rational, intelligent but unpretentious woman who long ago learned how to roll with the punches and come back smiling—is played by Leslie Vicary. M’lynn makes a point of telling the others that she knows when to speak and when to stay quiet. Vicary carries the dramatic lioness’s share, and adroitly weaves her way through the show’s emotional turns.

As Clairee, Hope Gazes Grayson brings a delightful carefree air to the ensemble. She also delivers some of the snarkiest lines with hairshop-raising hilarity… and just the right air of put-upon entitlement so common to small-town Southern aristocracy. Susan Lovell’s Ouiser, the town curmudgeon, has some of the best lines in the show—one woman’s husband is “such a gentleman—I bet he takes the dishes out of the sink before he pees in it.” Nearly everything she says is an outrageous one-liner… and it’s easy to make this role a pin-cushion for the others… but Lovell combines just enough ‘You can’t hurt me!’ strength with ‘I’d trade places with you, if I could’ compassion to ride it out.

The story takes place over three years, and starts out centering on Shelby’s upcoming nuptials. It is during an early moment in the show that we discover Shelby’s illness, when Giant creates an all-too-real diabetic episode for her character. Shelby is soundly independent, yet as fragile as pink and baby’s breath. Naturally Shelby’s dream is to get married and have a child of her own. To tell you more would bore those who are already familiar with this often done 26 year old play… and spoil it for those few of you that haven’t seen a movie or production.

While the premise may sound like a scriptwriters’ guide for a Lifetime TV tearjerker, the play itself is anything but morose and predictable—a real-life ride of equal parts hilarity and solemnity. Director and cast sustain a quick pace that reinforces the musicality of the conversation in the salon, without pushing it to the point of satire. With seemingly natural ease, the actresses adopt attitudes and accents believable even to a critic who watches Southern habits and mores with a more-than-occasional tightness in his chest.

One thing the show does as well as most productions I’ve seen is the fixing of hair on stage. This, the intimacy of the tiny theatre, and the strong work of the ensemble transcend the thin line between plausible and overplayed—which is a difficult one for many theater companies. There’s wonderful chemistry and generosity between all of these actresses, and that makes the connections between the characters all the more satisfying and real. It fills their salon and the stage; it also makes it hard to quibble with small flaws.

Harling wrote this play after his younger sister died from complications caused by diabetes, and he wanted it to be realistic. Midtown keeps this production solidly in the realm of the real. It’s medicine is gladly consumed, with emotional resonance that endures long after the details are forgotten.

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Steel Magnolias plays through March 9th at The Charleston Acting Studio, 915 Folly Road

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It is with life as it is with art: the deeper one penetrates, the broader the view.                   
~ Johann Goethe