MIDVALE — In Robert Harling‘s Steel Magnolias, a story about strong, colorful Southern women, one of the main themes, spoken by the character Shelby, “I’d rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.” The production at Midvale, while having it’s share of good moments, is unfortunately nothing special.
The main problem of the show was pace. Lines were dragged out and even dropped, dramatic pauses were perhaps too dramatic, and scene changes took far too long. I couldn’t tell if the root of the problem lay in the direction by Casey Matern, or in the choices made by the actors themselves, but it was indeed a large hindrance to the message they were trying to deliver, and especially to the script itself, which is largely comedic. Luckily, the script delivers even when the actors performing it do not.
One shining spot in the production, however, was Stephanie Johnson as Ouiser. From the moment she burst in the door on Act One, I could see that this would be the person to carry the show. Johnson is an extremely talented comedian, and she sparkled in her portrayal of the crotchety Southern woman who has little patience for others, yet also a kind and warm heart. I would return to see the show simply to see Johnson again, though she will not be performing every night as she shares the role with Laren Lynn Bateman. I do wish, however, that Johnson had not been wearing old age makeup. In a space that small, old age makeup is not necessary, and it can be something of a distraction. The fact that they had Johnson in a gray wig more than made up for the fact that she was not as old as her character.
Kristen Fox as Shelby and Stefanie Gallager as her mother M’Lynn had some very honest moments, Fox when her character had a diabetes attack, and Gallager when her character mourned her daughter’s death. Their performances on the whole, however, fell somewhat flat. Such is the power of the script, however, that M’Lynn’s lament brought me to tears. The rest of the cast, which consisted of Kirsten Darrington as Annelle, Marilyn Gallaway as Clairee, and Catherine Nelson Bohman as Truvy, was adequate, but their performances failed to thrill me.
Such are the limitations of the space (the stage is raised and the audience seated below), that some concessions had to be made concerning lighting and set design. For the most part, I thought the space was utilized well by set designer Jeremiah Wing, but one problem was a giant table front and center onstage, which blocked some of the action. Thankfully, with some creative blocking and audible actors, it wasn’t hugely distracting.
One choice that Matern made that I partcularly liked was having the actors talk to each other’s reflections in the mirror. This is something that is very familiar to women, who talk to each other while applying makeup or doing hair. The women all felt very natural together, as if they were actually friends.
The show calls for a lot of business, with actors doing one another’s hair and sweeping floors, etc. I like when actors have a lot to do, but one of the dangers of this is that actors will sometimes get so distracted with the business that they will drop a line or two. For the most part, they did well, but Bohman and Gallaway in particular seemed to have a little trouble with this.
Steel Magnolias remains, despite this production’s flaws, a powerful story with memorable and lovable characters. It is also a good clean show, making it ideal for people of all ages. It is, above all, a piece that tells the story of the female spirit, through outer and inner beauty alike.