BWW Reviews: STEEL MAGNOLIAS Ushers in New Season, New Direction at Totem Pole Playhouse
Robert Harling's STEEL MAGNOLIAS is a classic movie, with a stellar cast. Many films like that don't translate back and forth well with the stage. In this case the play came first, in 1987, and it did translate to film spectacularly... with some major changes, such as more cast, more settings, and male cast members. But at its stage-based heart it's a small, all-female ensemble play, with just one set, and it's still best that way. For any woman who's ever had her hair or nails done at a good, old-fashioned beauty parlor (forget the exotic day spas, folks, and the hot stone massage and the papaya-carrot juice and the locker rooms and raindrop showers), the bonding experience between women and their hair stylist - no, hairdresser, "hair stylist" is too fancy and far beyond this - and with the other women in the shop (it's a beauty shop, please, or a beauty parlor, not a salon, in the real world of small towns) is a sacred experience. STEEL MAGNOLIAS is the story of women bonding in that sacred space through their successes and their tragedies, through love, illness, death, and childbirth.
It's also at Totem Pole Playhouse through June 15, directed by Skip Greer of Geva Theatre Center, with a stage dominated, as usual, by the set design of James Fouchard. Although it's a summer theatre only, Totem Pole maintains a tradition of having the singularly best sets in the Central Pennsylvania region, and Truvy's carport-turned-top-salon-in-town is no exception to that tradition. It's the small neighborhood beauty parlor that women have frequented for decades, all across America, seeking beauty, social interaction, emotional support, and free therapy.
Truvy, the queen of her realm, is played by DC actor and local veteran Tonya Beckman; she's got a nice grasp of the intricate balance of businesswoman, beauty guru, and counselor that beauticians must maintain. Her performance is nuanced and sensitive to the multiple hats that the character, like all salon owners, wears. Bligh Voth, playing the young diabetic, Shelby, handles her role well but needs time to grow into it; she's not quite inhabiting her part yet. Danielle Sacks, playing Annelle, the new hairdresser, is a recent theatre school graduate who still feels a bit new; she, too, is still feeling her way, though she's got a lovely sense of comedy.
Ouiser, the crabbiest woman in town, is DC-area actor Caren Anton, a Totem Pole veteran. She's delightful in the role, one of the most comic older female parts ever written for stage. However, while she is more than capable in the part, in this production, Ouiser, who usually owns the show, is overshadowed (through no fault of Anton's) by her chief antagonist, Clairee, another of the local regulars at Truvy's. This is owing entirely to the casting - Clairee is portrayed by popular local actor Catherine Blaine, who is a comic force of nature. Her whiskey tenor is as strong as her timing, and her stage presence is always extraordinary; she owns not only the part, but much of the show.
M'Lynn, more central to the show than even Truvy herself, is veteran screen actor Melissa Gilbert, best known to most audiences as Laura Ingalls from television's "Little House on the Prairie". However, though television's her major area of performance, she's no television actor simply attempting to grab a stage credit; she's been on the boards since age 14. She knows her way around a stage and proves it here. It's easy to turn the women in this play into stereotypes, into cartoon characters of sorts, and more than one production has relied on that. But Gilbert comes on stage with a marked restraint that's actual acting and not just coming from years of on-screen close-ups, and it's a restraint that seems entirely proper for M'Lynn. Though at first it appeared that Gilbert was holding back a proper display of emotional depth, it gradually became clear that her M'Lynn is possessed of a dignified internal restraint, one that makes her angry, pained breakdown at the end of the play all the more meaningful because her M'Lynn is not the sort of woman who would do that in front of others if she could possibly help it. This M'Lynn is warm, caring, and a great mother - but she's the strong shoulder for others, not the one who normally needs someone else's shoulder, and her collapse at the end is devastating for the audience as well as for M'Lynn.
Although the scene changes, especially between the first two scenes, seemed awkwardly long, that may tighten up during the run. Additionally, in the music used during scene changes and onstage (supposedly from Clairee's radio station) problematically included Dolly Parton's "Nine to Five," which is distracting not only because it's so immediately catchy and recognizable but because it's so immediately associated with another popular film as well as with another (rather unfortunate) stage production. The urge to determine if and how the song applied to this show's characters was overwhelming - it feels too much like a metaphor that doesn't apply, rather than relevant sound from the period. There were a few other flaws, including on stage, that while not particularly distracting were nonetheless present, though they appeared to be the simple perils of an opening night without several previews.
As the first salvo of new artistic director Rowan Joseph's regime at Totem Pole, this production is a promising sign of things to come. It's to be hoped that this momentum can be continued throughout the season and into the next one, which has already been announced. This continued level of quality of production and performance are what will be needed to elevate the scheduled productions sufficiently to distinguish Totem Pole from non-professional theatres in the area that could easily schedule (and in the past few years have indeed produced) many of the same shows. In that regard, Totem Pole cannot afford to slip right now.
Through June 15; visit www.totempoleplayhouse.org for tickets and information.