Although Steel Magnolias was a Broadway hit, later adapted into a star-packed film, many Y-chromosome types may not have seen either version. For the men, the story centers on six women living in a small southern town. The gals include the Jesus freak Annelle (Camden McDaris), the crotchety Ouiser (Betsy Ross), the frail Shelby (Kim Ehly), matronly Clairee (Janet Luhrs), and Shelby's mother M'Lynn (Jo Haden), who all periodically gather at Truvy (Jeanne Lehman) 's beauty salon to gab. Consisting of four scenes set over three years, Steel Magnolias chronicles the events of women who could be anyone's family or neighbors, whose problems could, and do, happen to everyday ordinary people.
While there's little action and a slow-paced story, Steel Magnolias' charm comes from the realistic characters that Robert Harling has created. The gals have non-stop witty banter that keeps the laughs coming almost constantly and more than makes up for the lack of a linear plot.
Harling's script leaves plenty of opportunity to poke fun at Southern Christians when the character Annelle is born again somewhere between scene 1 and scene 2, yet these opportunities for fun-poking were conspicuously underplayed (possibly because the play was produced by the 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church Theatre Fellowship).
The well-chosen cast nailed most of the characters perfectly, with Jo Haden as M'Lynn in the standout performance of the evening; however the couple of non-union actors did lag behind their Equity counterparts.
The single set (a hair salon designed by the ironically named Amy Hair) was crammed full of authentic salon furniture. This multilevel set very effectively let the audience keep an eye on everyone when all six characters were onstage at once, and lighting designer Paul Foster had his hands full keeping everything lit with so much of the stage being used at once.
Co-directed by Bob Brennan and Margo Martindale (who originated the role of Truvy in the original Broadway production of Magnolias), the play moved along surprisingly fast, keeping the audience constantly amused by Harling's dialogue. The directing duo also made sure that the occasional shifts from comedic to tragic occurred naturally.
While the characters and events could be in any time over the past 50 years, there are several scripted references to the fact that the play is set in the 80s, and Brennan and Martindale failed to convey that specific time period. Drew Anderson's choice of music for the soundtrack also failed to capture the sound of the '80s (Anderson's sound effects, however were great). The uncredited costumes also lacked a definitive '80s look. While they weren't exactly anachronistic, they failed to show the distinct '80s style that the play needed.
Although the feeling of being in the '80s wasn't fully achieved, it's still pleasantly surprising that a play so centered on small town life in the '80s should still prove so entertaining in a big city in the 21st century.
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Copyright 2003 Charles Battersby