By Kay Kipling
Lovers of Steel Magnolias, whether it be the film version starring, among others, Sally Field and Julia Roberts, or the numerous onstage productions locally over the years, have certain lines from this Robert Harling play they know by heart—guaranteed laugh lines that also reveal something about the hearts and minds of the Southern women populating this comedy-drama.
I know many of those lines, too, but in case you’re a newcomer to Steel Magnolias, I won’t reprint any of them here. You won’t have trouble discerning them in the Players’ current production; most of them are delivered with zest and a certain “wait for it” pause beforehand.
A lot of those lines filter through the mouth of Clairee (Patti O’Berg), the widow of the former mayor of Chinquapin, La., where the play is set in a beauty salon (remaining firmly locked in time in the mid-1980s). But everyone gets to have some fun with Harling’s affectionate pokes at certain predilections and foibles of the genus Steel Magnolia.
That ranges from the perpetually grumpy Ouiser (Betty Robinson) to the comforting hairdresser Truvy (Leona Collesano) and even to the nervous and uptight newcomer Annelle (Cullen White). But of course the heart of Steel Magnolias is the relationship between young Shelby (Amanda Heisey) and her mother M’Lynn (Ellie Pattison). It’s a believable dynamic with a lot of love but also a typical fight for control, especially as Shelby faces marriage and motherhood—the latter a state rendered tricky by her health issues.
In Act I of the play (directed by Bob Trisolini), at least on opening night, it sometimes felt as if the actresses were pushing too hard, both for those laughs and with their Southern accents. The play naturally lends itself to oversized behavior, but the characters need to be recognizable people and not cartoons.
But as the conversation among these ladies wears on, we begin to feel more comfortable with who they are and willing to go along for the ride as they each face changes in their lives over a two-year-plus period. And while Steel Magnolias can certainly plead guilty to being corny at times, there’s no doubt the outcome of the Shelby-M’Lynn situation will touch even the harder hearts among us before the curtain comes down.
The action all takes place on a salon set convincingly represented by set designer Jeff Weber, and the actresses are good at carrying out a lot of actions (especially on the pair of hairdresser Truvy) while still handling their dialogue and behavior. It was certainly a hit for the opening night audience—maybe even the males as well as females.
Steel Magnolias continues through Sept. 29; for tickets call 365-2494 or go to theplayers.org.