BWW Reviews: STEEL MAGNOLIAS Shines at City Theatre

Smantha Brewer as Truvy, Judith Laird as Ouiser,
Angelina Castillo as Shelby, and Heather Bullard as Annelle in
STEEL MAGNOLIAS. Photo by Aleks Ortynski.

There's a lightning-in-a-bottle quality that permeates Steel Magnolias. With a cast that includes Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts, it's no surprise that the film version was such a hit and continues to be an enduring classic. But the true power of Steel Magnolias is its story and themes of the bonds between women, and that's exactly why City Theatre's production of the play is such a success. Director Andy Berkovsky and his incredible cast of six aren't interested in replicating Sally, Dolly, Shirley, Daryl, Olympia, and Julia. They're interested in creating original characters with deep friendships.

While the film version of Steel Magnolias features a wide array of characters and settings, the original stage version is much simpler, and the six person cast and single set are all that playwright Robert Harling needs to create a compelling story. The brilliant comedy-drama centers on six women in a small town in Louisiana. As the women converge and gossip in a beauty parlor owned by Truvy (Samantha Brewer), we see how deeply they are connected to one another, especially when a health crisis threatens young Shelby (Angelina Castillo).

Director Andy Berkovsky clearly understands the characters and their relationships. The bonds between these women are incredibly natural, believable and real. It's tough to see the hands of a director on these women or their story, and that is a testament to the skillfulness of Berkovsky's direction. The set, also by Berkovsky, is outstandingly real. While the design work is beautiful, many of the elements in Truvy's salon verge on tackiness and bad taste, just as if the loveable salon owner decorated it herself.

The set truly does feel like an extension of Truvy, and Samantha Brewer is outstanding in the role. The parallels to Dolly Parton are there, but Brewer never tries to copy the country music icon. As she showed in last year's production of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Brewer is a fantastic actress who can seamlessly transition from dramatic moments to comedic ones, and that talent is shown once again here. Heather Bullard is fantastic as Annelle, Truvy's new employee and fellow hair stylist, and she particularly shines in the early scenes where she gets to show Annelle's tentative and cautious side. As the constantly cheerful Clairee, Tracy Hurd is delightful to watch, and Judith Laird is hysterical as the dry, grouchy Ouiser. Just looking at Laird sneer and scowl is enough to make you giggle.

Though the four mentioned above get the most comedic material to work with, they're superbly balanced out by Angelina Castillo and Sarah Seaton in the play's two dramatic roles. Both manage to tug at your heartstrings without resorting to all-out melodrama. As Shelby, Castillo gives an enduring and memorable performance. She's strong, stubborn, and free-spirited. Though we may question some of the choices the character makes, the choices made by Castillo in her performance are spot on. As Shelby's mother, M'Lynn, Sarah Seaton explodes in the final moments of the play but brilliantly plays earlier scenes in a more demure manner. The contrast makes the ending all the more powerful and engrossing.

As fantastic as the film version of Steel Magnolias is, the City Theatre does not even attempt to imitate it. That's what makes their production so wildly effective. This production is beautiful and strong, just like the steel magnolias referenced in the title.

Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission. STEEL MAGNOLIAS plays the City Theatre at 3823 Airport Blvd, Suite D, Austin 78722 now thru December 22nd. Performances are Thursday - Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 5:30pm. Tickets are $10-$25. For tickets and information, visit www.citytheatreaustin.org.




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