Monday, March 22, 2004

Steel Magnolias

Louisiana-born lawyer/actor/playwright Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias originally as a short story as therapy to help him deal with the untimely death of his diabetic sister, his “best friend,” following childbirth. "My nephew was about to turn five," he explained, "and I suddenly realized that if I didn’t put down on paper what happened to his mother, he’d never know who she was."

While the story tells of a tragic event, Harling injected it with a heavy dose of Southern humor, filled with wonderfully witty banter and wisecracks (“If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!”). He set it in a beauty parlor, the mysterious and fascinating place where his mother and sister would disappear for a few hours each week with their friends.

Steel Magnolias premiered on Broadway in 1987 and was later made into a hugely popular movie with an all star cast that featured Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLean, Sally Field, Daryl Hannah and garnered an Academy Award nomination for Julia Roberts.

The Winters Community Theatre has chosen Steel Magnolias as its spring production, directed by Howard Hupe.

From the moment the curtains open on the Truvy’s Beauty Shop in Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, thanks to the set design of Trent Beeby, Gloria Marion and Howard Hupe. we enter the world Harling created, and begin eavesdropping on the close knit group of women friends, these Southern belles whose shared camaraderie, joy and grief gives them the softness of magnolias, and the strength of steel.

The four-scene play takes place over a two year period of time in the late 1980s. All action takes place in the beauty shop under the direction of owner Truvy, played by Gloria Marion, who wields a comb with the professionalism of a real beautician (which Marion is in real life).

As the story begins, it is Shelby’s wedding day. Gina Wingard is a delicious Shelby, a headstrong young woman determined to have her own way, whether it is about the decorations for her wedding hairdo, or the decision to risk her life in order to have the baby for which she so desperately longs (“I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”)

New to the beauty shop is Annelle (Jennifer Hale), a young woman new to town, hiding a secret, and in need of a job. Hale seemed a bit unsure of herself in the opening scene, but grew more confident as the play progressed.

The marvelous Germane Hupe is Claree, an eccentric widowed millionaire. Hupe has wonderful comic timing and gets the most out of her biting sarcastic comments (“Very good, Annelle! You’ve spoken like a true smart-ass!”, “Ouiser could never stay mad at me; she worships the quicksand I walk on.”)

Maggie Burns is very funny as the crusty old spitfire Ouiser, who has a running feud going with Shelby’s father, her next door neighbor. (“The only reason people are nice to me is that I have more money than God.” “I’m not crazy; I’ve just been in a bad mood for 40 years.”)

Shelby’s social worker mother, M’Lynne, is played by Ann Rost. Rost was often the weakest in the cast, her lines spoken so softly they barely made it past the first row. However, she took command of the stage as the grieving mother, following Shelby’s death and had the audience in the palm of her hand, sniffles audible throughout the house. Her anger came from the very depth of her soul and was painfully familiar to anyone who has suffered the loss of a child.

This production of Steel Magnolias is a little rough around the edges, with some stumbling over lines here and there, but the six-woman cast forms a cohesive ensemble which combines to give a very real, funny, and moving experience for the audience.

Steel Magnolias continues at the Winters Community Center, 201 Railroad Avenue, Winters on weekends through March 28.

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