Revolving around Truvy's Beauty Parlor in a small parish in Louisiana, STEEL MAGNOLIAS is the story of a close-knit circle of friends whose lives come together there. It is about the bond a group of women share in the small-town Southern community, and how they cope with the death of one of their own. The play originally opened Off-Broadway (with one set and an all-female cast although the voice of a male DJ on the radio is intermittent during the play with all male "characters" referenced only through dialogue) at the WPA Theatre, in New York City, on March 28, 1987. The story is based on Robert Harling's real-life experience of the death of his sister, Susan Harling Robinson, in 1985 due to complications from Type 1 diabetes. He changed his sister's name in the story from Susan to Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie. The play features an all-female cast, portraying characters Harling modeled after his mom's friends as he remembered them from his childhood. "I always thought the women in my community were so witty and clever," he says. "It was like a witty one-upmanship (between them)." He worried that the real-life Ouiser, a character defined by her cranky and brutally honest nature, would recognize herself and take offense, but as women from his hometown began to see the play, "They all said they were Ouiser." The metaphor of "steel magnolia" isn't expounded upon in the play, though Harling says the juxtaposition of strength and fragility is apt for Southern women. "My mother would always say to handle magnolia blossoms carefully because they bruise so easily. You think of this flower that is so delicate and has to be handled with care but is actually made of much stronger stuff."
On a personal note - I have directed this play numerous times - I love, love, love this story - and I admit I went into the theater with my expectations a bit reserved - wondering how this cast would bring the chemistry of these wonderful glorious women to life on the stage. And, to top-off my hesitation I brought a guest who loves the story as much as I do and has played the roles of Clariee and Ouiser in other productions over the past few years.
The action takes place entirely in the 'man-free' beauty parlor where the women gather to laugh, gossip, cry, and offer friendship and support to one another. At one point M'Lynn even jokes that her husband would never enter the shop - it is women's territory and he probably thinks they all run around naked or something.
The shining light of the ensemble of six is Clairee Belcher, played by Sue Goodner, who portrays the cheerful widow of the former mayor of Chinquapin Parrish. I was thoroughly entertained as she searched from head to toe for her recipe cards she wanted to share with Truvy. Her portrayal of a woman who loved each of these women in their own unique way was exceptional.
Annelle Dupuy, played by Adelyn Maruca, has the most transitional growth in the play as she comes to the stage as a scared, insecure beauty school graduate, hired to work at Truvy's home-based beauty salon. Maruca is a pleasure to watch as her character matures on stage before our very eyes - moving from the nervous beauty assistant who reveals her husband has recently left her taking all their money and their car; to the outlandish young woman who goes wild and was drinking, running around, smoking ... until she sees the error of my her ways and realizes she has something to offer and joins the church - finally she is credited with becoming "a true smart-ass'.
Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie is played by Alden Price. When Price comes into the beauty parlor her energy is infectious and she is striking to watch onstage, not to mention the fact that she resembles a young Elizabeth Taylor. Shelby exchanges banters with the ladies in the shop as they ask questions about her soon to be wedding. The tension required to emphasize the complicated relationship between bride-to-be Shelby and her mother, M'Lynn, was extremely well-played. Price's portrayal of a young woman having a diabetic seizure was riveting and she held the audience in her hands until she realizes what has happened and says "I'm sorry Mama" - truly a simply outstanding performance. This play is extremely well written and, as one who knows the dialogue from start to finish, I was a bit distracted by Price's occasional ad-lib.
Kathleen Vaught plays the particularly reserved M'Lynn Eatenton and she leaves no doubt on the stage about her deep maternal love for Shelby and her desire for her daughters' happiness. She brought tears to my eyes as she took charge of Shelby's diabetic episode and once Shelby recovers Vaught hugs her daughter lovingly - holding her tight for just an extra second before returning to her reserved persona of M'Lynn. However, in the final scene where the ladies return to the beauty shop to mourn Shelby's death, Vaught portrays the scene with a more settled approach to the character - it was a less emotional breakdown than I was expecting, or perhaps hoping for.
Truvy Jones is played by Bobbie Keese and in the opening scene I questioned that she was actually old enough to have grown twin sons, but I quickly forgot my early doubts as she portrayed her character with ditzy twists and endearing charm.
Rounding out the cast is Mary Tiner who brings Ouiser Boudreaux to the stage as the short-tempered, grouchy, intimidating woman who arrives in the salon with a heap of pointed questions and numerous complaints.
Director Jennifer Stephens Stubbs gets a two-thumbs-up for her interpretation of these glorious women and the beauty parlor where we watch them evolve.
The Allen's Community Theatre STEEL MAGNOLIAS is well worth seeing. I highly recommend taking a few hours from your schedule and spending it with these formidable ladies of Chinquapin Parrish.
Reviewed Performance: 1/21/2018