Somewhere in the 1970s, we learned that women could like each other, that female friendship was precious, and that society's insistence that women's concerns were inherently more trivial than the concerns of men was blind and stupid. Though she might pass much of her time shopping or in the kitchen, the average woman was still a nurturer of life and -- when necessary -- a gentle guide through the process of dying. Steel Magnolias, written in 1987 and made into a film starring Julia Roberts, Sally Field and Dolly Parton a year or so later, is very much in this vein. Author Robert Harling uses a beauty parlor as the setting where six women gossip, wisecrack, fuss with their hair and nails, comfort and irritate each other -- and mourn or celebrate the major events of their lives together.
Truvy's Salon is in Chinquapin, Louisiana, and these are small-town and very Southern women. Early in the play, Shelby is sitting in one of Truvy's chairs, being primped and prettied for her wedding. She and her mother, M'Lynn, disagree about the baby's breath that Shelby plans to wear in her hair. Romantic, insists Shelby, whose favorite color is pink. Cheesy and obvious, harrumphs Mama. Truvy, a woman with a store of quips and a touching faith in the power of cosmetics, bustles around, teasing, combing and spraying. There's also Ouiser, the town eccentric; Claree, widow of the late mayor, who combines a passion for football with a hankering for big-city culture; and little Annelle, whom we first meet as a new hairdresser afraid to touch her customers' heads and who transforms during the course of the play into a born-again Christian.
Yes, there's a lot that feels dated or manipulative here, particularly the tear-soaked climax, which is touching for a while but goes on and on. All these women have hearts of gold. Despite the routine gossip and quarreling, their eyes twinkle and they all really love each other. When Truvy says her favorite emotion is "laughter through tears," she's pretty much describing the entire play.
Still, you get caught up in the characters' lives; you care what happens to them. That's partly because of the performances in this heartfelt production directed by Robert Kramer at Miners Alley Playhouse, and partly because -- despite all -- there's some juice in the script.
The relationship between Shelby and M'Lynn has stereotypical elements, but it also speaks of the profound love and ambivalence between mothers and daughters; Shelby's determination to have a baby in spite of failing health is touching. Some of Harling's dialogue is funny, and he creates a genuinely warm and empathetic atmosphere amid the pink curlers and tacky decor of the salon. I wish he'd take a little more risk, though, allow a touch of nastiness here or there. On her first crashing entrance, Ouiser seems almost psychotic -- a cleansing gale of unreason in this insular little world. But she's soon revealed as the kind of harmless, lovable old eccentric we've seen a thousand times before. Truvy appears shallow at first, but of course her heart is kind. And though Annelle's evangelism arouses the others' derision, we know that in a crisis she'll speak clear-sighted, simple and affecting truth -- and indeed she does.
This production's start seems a little unfocused, but everything falls into place with Terry Ann Watts's entrance as Ouiser. So complete is her immersion in the role that she centers the others; all of the performances deepen from then on. Deirdre O'Connor is a likable Shelby, and she's particularly touching during the quarrel with her mother. As M'Lynn's years of self-control fall away toward the end of the play, Kristin Fuhrmann Clark conveys the character's emotions beautifully. Sally Clodfelter, a thin, lively, scuttling figure with artfully curled hair that's an improbable shade of gold, is a perfect Truvy. Carol Rust has a fine voice and a good presence as Claree Belcher, though she's sometimes guilty of mugging. The real find is Theresa Adams, who plays Annelle. She's hammy at first -- and periodically through the rest of the play -- but she's also radiant, charming and impossible not to watch. When she nails an emotion, she nails it solid. If Adams's technique becomes as strong as her stage presence, she'll be a genuine force.
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