SPRINGVILLE — Full disclosure: I am nowhere near the target demographic of Steel Magnolias.
Now with that out of the way, I can fully attest that this show can be enjoyed by most anyone. Though it centers around a group of gossipy women, I was truly able to have a great night watching the Springville Playhouse production of this perennial classic.
Steel Magnolias is a show all about character relationships. Written by Robert Harling as a means of healing after a family tragedy, the show focuses on friendship and the strength and support that can be found in tribulation. Everything revolves around a small hair salon in rural Louisiana. It is the hub for a small group of friends to come and exchange gossip and get their hair done. There’s Truvy (the salon owner), Annelle (the awkward and clumsy newcomer), Shelby (a young bride-to-be), M’Lynn (her controlling mother), Clairee (the wife of a recently deceased mayor), and Ouiser (the lovable curmudgeon). The show spans the course of about three yearsof trials, tragedies, successes, and surprises through the eyes of this close-knit group.
In show so focused on character, it is essential for the cast to quickly build a rapport with each other on stage. For the most part, it was easy to feel the care the characters had for one another. Even with the newly hired hair assistant Annelle, I could see the other characters, spearheaded by Truvy, forming bonds with her that would be essential in supporting the emotion of the final scenes.
Probably one of the best combinations of the evening had to be that of Robinne Booth as M’Lynn and Joni Newman as Shelby. These two actors were the most confident in the group and seemed the most natural in their performances. There was a clear mother-daughter bond which felt very real, which advanced the main plot along in a believable way. The conflicts and resolutions between M’Lynn and Shelby created the tension that me engaged in the story. And were it not for the strong performances from these two women throughout the show, the ending would have fallen flat. As it was, there was a beautiful and wonderfully vulnerable moment for Booth that showed the depth of the character and the range of the actor.
Comedic relief was ably provided by Karen Davis as Annelle and Arlene McGregor as Ouiser. Though these two both had small moments of serious acting, they really sparkled in the moments where they got to be the goofy, slightly over-the-top characters. Both showed great changes as their characters progressed through the years, dealing with new boyfriends, religious transformations, etc. These two actors also gave the audience a bit of a reprieve from some of the heavier stuff in the show, but didn’t shy away from a few serious lines here or there.
Stability was added to the show by Kaye Fugal-Arnold as Truvy and Vicki Wheeler as Clairee. These two actors added a level of accessibility to the audience. Though both had a few quirks, the job of these characters was to be the voice of reason, a grounding influence that the viewers could connect with to enter the world of the play. Fugal-Arnold and Wheeler both created realistic characters that one might find in any town in the country. They were also able to play on both sides of the spectrum, clowning it up when they needed some comedy, and toning it down when comfort was needed.
Additionally, this cast had a strong ensemble quality to it. It didn’t feel as if certain roles were leads and others were supporting. Everyone seemed to have an equal share in the cast as a whole. It was really refreshing to see. I’m sure that much of this was due to the direction of Kathy Llewellyn. The overall pace and tone of the show was well balanced, and the stage pictures never got stale. There was always a purpose to the placement of the actors, and there were some creative solutions to some of the logistical problems that come with small, tightly-packed sets.
There were a few hang-ups in the show. A few punchlines fell flat, others felt a little too set-up. There were quite a few stumbles and trips in the lines. Everyone once in a while an interaction or a joke would feel clunky, or the blocking was a little stiff. Scene changes were pretty long. All of the actors put together good quality performances, but they were not particularly innovative. These are not meant to be harsh criticisms. This show was a well-done community theater piece, but it still could use some polish here and there. The set by Kathy Llewellyn and Mark Taggart was well designed. It provided a number of acting areas to keep the blocking fresh. It had a great attention to detail that was supported in large part by the wonderful prop design of Dawn Douglass. A number of the props seemed to be authentic 1980’s items, and there were a number of items where I thought, “Where on Earth did they find one of those?”
Overall, I really did enjoy this show. It was a nice night of theater and well worth the $8 ticket. It is a show that will uplift and entertain at the same time. There are a few things that weren’t perfect, but any flaws were masked by mostly solid performances and a good story. I recommend catching this show before it’s gone.