There will always be a place for Steel Magnolias as long as there are actresses who want to perform as part of a strong all-female ensemble. Since premiering off-Broadway in 1987, it has been transformed into a hit 1989 film starring Julia Roberts and Sally Field, played Broadway in 2005 with Delta Burke, and been performed countless times for nearly thirty years all across the country. There are six productions (!) over the course of one month within 60 miles of Columbus alone, though The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton is the only professional theatre company performing Steel Magnolias this fall in Ohio.
Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias after losing his beloved sister to diabetes. He set the play in Truvy’s Beauty Shop in the fictional city of Chinquapin, Louisiana, in the late 1980s. Six women discuss their lives and loves all while either getting their hair done or doing hair. The play begins on the day M’Lynn’s daughter Shelby is to be wed, and it covers the next few years in their lives as Shelby suffers with her diabetes and the women bond over trying to see her through it. There is Truvy, the owner of the beauty shop; Annelle, her newly hired assistant; Clairee, a football-loving widow; and there is Ouiser, a grouchy neighbor who runs everyone the wrong way.
It’s nice that the actors in this production aren’t trying to copy the performances in the popular 1989 film adaptation. There are many different ways to plays these parts, and the film is by no means definitive as far as I’m concerned (though I know every scene and line by heart). It’s refreshing to see Caitlin Larsen’s Ouiser even though I also enjoy Shirley MacLaine’s rather one-note performance. Ms. Larsen allows Ouiser to mellow and grow throughout, as even her clothing and tone reflect how having her old beau Owen back in her life (all because of Shelby) has changed her for the better. This Ouiser is still a pistol, but she’s a person too because of what Ms. Larsen brings to the table. Patricia Linhart as Clairee and Julia Geisler as Shelby are two other standouts in the cast, offering a bit more sass in those parts when compared with the film.
The only performance I find disappointing is by Christine Brunner as Truvy. Ms. Brunner stays close to the surface and appears to be listening for her cues more than listening to her cast mates. When Shelby announces that she’s pregnant, Ms. Brunner reacts before anyone else, so quickly that it didn’t seem like Ms. Geisler had even completed her line! She appears more concerned with getting her accent right and being consistent with it than offering much in the way of feeling. Some of Truvy’s best lines fall flat because of it.
The set by Eric Moore is inspired and appears ready for business. The plumbing and appliances all work, and the kitchen off to the side (only visible to half of the audience) has a fridge and sink as well! Back issues of magazines, pastel patterned furniture, and beauty parlor equipment are all in evidence; so realistic is the set that it’s doubly odd that the backdrop outside the window and door are blank, ruining the illusion. The second scene in the first act takes place in darkness as a fuse has been blown and Truvy and Annelle are off futzing with the circuit breaker – yet a lamp and string of Christmas lights off to the right are still illuminated. These flaws stick out mainly because of how well handled the set and utilities are otherwise; they are unfortunate issues with an otherwise very impressive set and lighting design.
I should divulge that this is the second production of Steel Magnolias that I’ve seen in as many weeks, the first being the King Avenue Players production in Columbus. Though that production was pretty iffy with a cast of variable ability (I preferred their Truvy and M’Lynn though), I must admit that I teared up at the conclusion. I didn’t have the same reaction this time, though I’m not sure if it is the fault of the production, the acting, or my having seen it two weeks earlier. I suspect it is the latter, as so much of this production is strong and enjoyably familiar.
*** out of ****
Steel Magnolias continues through to November 29th in The Loft Theatre at 126 North Main Street in downtown Dayton (just over an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://humanracetheatre.org/1516/steel-magnolias/index.php