You may want to run home and brush your teeth after attending Steel Magnolias--all the sugar in playwright Robert Harling's script is likely to encrust them. The play does have a few redeeming moments, some of which the production at the Aurora Fox manages to locate. But in the end, the limitations of this dated tearjerker are too great to make it a positive theatrical experience.
The most annoying thing about the play may be Harling's patronizing attitude toward his own characters. He's trying to understand a group of ordinary upper-class Southern women and their rituals of bonding (with working-class women, no less). But kindhearted and resilient though the characters may be, these magnolias don't emit the perfume of real life. That's a major problem for a play that's character-driven rather than story-driven.
All this bonding takes place in a Chinquapin, Louisiana, beauty salon owned by Truvy, an aging glamour girl with a knack for the wisecrack. The hairdresser has just taken on a frumpy apprentice, Annelle, who at eighteen already has a mysterious past. It seems her husband, who took her jewelry and absconded with the car and the cash, is a drug dealer wanted by the police. The young girl fears that her new employer won't approve of a girl with such connections, and it takes a whole passel of nosy women to drag the secret out of her.
Among these good old girls are Miss Clairee, a millionaire with too much time on her hands and a passion for football, and the town curmudgeon, a rich lady named Ouiser, who tells her friendly psychologist, "I'm not crazy, I've just been in a very bad mood for forty years." The psychologist, M'Lynn, is actually the principal character of the play and the woman to whom fate is most nasty. Married to an eccentric man who pays her little attention, she is the mother of two rambunctious adult sons and a contentious daughter, Shelby, who suffers from a virulent form of diabetes. The play begins on Shelby's wedding day, and the bride and her mother have chosen Truvy's as the place to have their hair done and their aggravations aired.
Shelby has been strictly advised by her doctors not to have children, since the strain on her body will probably kill her. Since M'Lynn is constantly nagging her to take care of herself and scolding her for not listening to her doctors, we know where we're going, how we will get there, and why the women are "steel" magnolias instead of the softer stuff they appear to be. The ending is telegraphed in the first scene.
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The only character who actually goes through any interesting changes over the course of the two years covered by the play is oddball Annelle, who briefly embraces glamour until she discovers Christian fundamentalism and retreats to dowdiness and juvenile piety. Jennifer Turner gives one of the most interesting performances of the evening, making Annelle goofy, fragile and a little dim while projecting an authentic innocence. Less persuasive is Ryla Wolfe as Truvy. Wolfe strains so much with her Southern accent that her voice sounds hoarse, and few of her lines crack as wise as they ought to.
Victoria Perez as Shelby struggles with both her accent and her overall tone, whining when she should be coaxing and confusing fussiness with self-assertion. Surely director Connie J. Sander could have helped Perez play against the most obvious reading of this role, which is easily the mushiest part in the show. As it is, it's difficult to sympathize with anyone stupid enough to utter the line "I'd rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special" when her mother warns her not to get pregnant. Her "thirty minutes of wonderful" leads to years of grotesque suffering for her family and friends. And by the time it's over, Harling still hasn't provided a convincing explanation for her selfish hunger to have children.
The playwright does better with the mother. Jan Cleveland's M'Lynn is sophisticated, smart and annoying--all the things a good mother should be--and her suffering seems real enough to move us in the last angry scene of mourning. Also helping keep the audience involved in this lame tale are the comic presences of Marion Rex as Clairee and Laura Booze as Ouiser. But even their antics can't overcome Harling's sentimental view of emotional strength. His admiration for the ladies of Chinquapin is laudable but shallow. And his efforts to make a cosmic statement in a beauty shop fail; like a bad make-up artist, he only skitters across the surface of these lives.
Steel Magnolias, through April 13 at the Aurora Fox, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 361-2910.