Robert Harling’s comedy Steel Magnolias is so well–written, so beautifully paced, it would take an exceptionally opaque theater company to do it injustice.
Happily that isn’t the case with the City of Savannah’s current production of this iron–clad work of dramatic arts. With a cast of six sensitively cast and utterly winning women, the city’s Steel Magnolias succeeds from the opening line to the last.
It’s a seductive show that brings you into its world and convinces you, early on, that sticking around is going to be a rich and rewarding experience.
The world in question is Truvy’s beauty salon in tiny Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana.
There’s Truvy (Kelley Gray), the sing–songy chatterbox and undying optimist; just–arrived Annelle (Danielle Frazier), quiet and shy with a mysterious past; Wise Clairee (Vickie Blackshear), who has a funny retort to just about everything; Ouiser (Gail Byrd), bitter and sarcastic, with a heart of gold under her crusty armor.
“I’m not crazy,” Ouiser says. “I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years.”
Then there’s sparkling young Shelby (Carmel Grace Cowart), who’s about to be married to a sharp lawyer from the city; and her mother, M’Lynn, a matriarch with a brilliant mind and a tart tongue, resigned to always doing what’s best for her beloved family.
Here’s what happens: You like these women. A lot. As they sit, stand and wander around the beauty shop set, you’re drawn into their conversations, their lives and complex relationships with one another.
Onstage, director Ellie Pyle has achieved a physical balance that broadcasts the dialogue in a unique variation of stereo: For example, during much of the first act, as Shelby and M’Lynn are having their hair done by Truvy and Annelle, respectively, they’re perched on salon chairs set apart on either side of the stage.
The dialogue – alternating between sharp, sweet and unabashedly hilarious – bounces back and forth between the four women, from one side to the other, with Clairee and Ousier set a little bit back, in the center, chiming in like the midrange speakers.
There’s gossip, jokes, insults and words of undying affection.
“We enjoy being nice to each other,” Truvy points out. “There’s not much else to do in this town.”
It’s this sort of attention to detail that makes this show sing for two wholly satisfying hours.
During an early scene, when Shelby’s life–threatening diabetes makes its first unannounced appearance, the audience is already enveloped, and the moment is raw and emotional.
That’s the thing about Steel Magnolias – there’s a tragedy to go along with the comedy, and Harling’s brilliance is in the subtle way that they’re stitched together. You’ve made some new friends, and by the time they have to deal with darkness, you do, too.
The cast members – all six of them – work together like a well–manicured machine. Still, there are standout performances. Blackshear knocks every one of Clairee’s zingers out of the park, and Byrd somehow makes Ouiser’s irascible coot lovable.
M’Lynn’s big denouement monologue is heartbreaking. Throughout the play, the wonderful Jones has played her character as a rock – albeit a rock with a stinging sense of humor – and when she finally comes apart, it’s as if we’re witnesses to the unthinkable.
Steel Magnolias is an emotional roller coaster. In that way, it’s like life itself – despite the downs that come with the ups, you wouldn’t trade the experience and you’d buy another ticket in a Louisiana heartbeat.
Steel Magnolias continues Oct. 8–10 at S.P.A.C.E., 9 W. Henry St. See savannahga.gov/arts.
It is free and open to the public.
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