Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias is an ably constructed
play, made up of two parts punchline and one part sentimentality.
As presented by Centerfold Productions and directed by Donald
Warfield, the gags sometimes hit their marks, sometimes went wide,
but the production became more effective when it turned sad --
the sentiment scored over the jokes.
Truvy's (Diane Bradley) beauty parlor is a combination town hall and gossip central. Although M'Lynn (Laura Warfield) is head of the mental health clinic in town, introspection is not a major part of these women's makeup. Their emotions are simple and direct, and usually delivered as impeccable comic retorts. The lines are indeed funny ("You know I'd rather step on my lips than say an unkind word" precedes just that) but they were often funnier than their delivery.
The cast was also at the mercy of some awkward staging in Act I. The set on the wide playing area (design by Tim Golebiewski) was terrific -- from the worn linoleum to the tacky chairs under the dryers to the real workstations (the program thanks several beauty parlors for their assistance) -- but characters were so widely dispersed that following a conversation was like watching a tennis match. In contrast, when the action focused on Shelby's diabetic fit, the production also came more into focus. Although Shelby's attack is the symbolic gun that will later go off, the actors were able to rally 'round, literally and figuratively, and there was real feeling on stage.
The actors were better at drama than comedy, and they occasionally struggled with dialogue that would never come from these characters ("white smoke's billowing -- either the tree's on fire or they've elected a new pope"). But when permitted by the script, they rose: Bradley's understated astonishment to M'Lynn of Truvy's "You are gonna give Shelby a kidney and you never mentioned it?" packed a big punch.
And some of the best performing was done in the background -- Warfield was most effective when she was simply listening and observing. She was also the beneficiary of a heroic outburst of grief which she made the most of, maintaining her dignity while piercing to the core. As Shelby, who bears the brunt of the plot mechanics, Lillian Langford was good, navigating the defiance and accommodations of a dutiful daughter, using her Julia Roberts-wide smile; Joanne Bayes was a flighty yet solid Clairee, evidencing her pleasure at finding life after widowhood. Kristie Lee Dickson had a good sense of fun as Annelle when she was the champion of arts and crafts, and Bradley did seem like the welcoming proprietor of a shop who is just as happy to see her customers as she is to service them. There was a distinctly odd performance by Mary Grace as Ouiser that became endearing in spite of itself. All the performers' Southern accents were credible and sustained.
The structure of Steel Magnolias is fairly diagrammatic, strolling along from A to B to C with reassuring regularity. This beauty parlor is an oasis of love and support, and the strength of the women in this production comes more from their eventual ability to touch their feelings than their ease with a quip. (Costumes, Al Roach; lights, Tim Golebiewski.)
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Copyright 1998 David Mackler