BWW Reviews: STEEL MAGNOLIAS Warms Hearts in a Cold December at Susquehanna Stage Co
Earlier this season, Susquehanna Stage Co produced a spectacular production of THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, directed by Artistic Director Jim Johnson. (That particular production is currently in competition for Best Ensemble in a Drama in the 2013 Broadway World Awards.) As a matter of bookending, Johnson decided to schedule a women's ensemble play to end the season - Robert Harling's STEEL MAGNOLIAS. As a scheduling concept, it's a bit of a tour de force, rather like putting on A RAISIN IN THE SUN at the beginning of a season and following it later with CLYBOURNE PARK. These two plays don't riff off of the other as CLYBOURNE PARK does with RAISIN, but it's still a neat pairing, contrasting one of America's best small-ensemble men's dramas that historically (and still) packs a punch with one of America's favorite women's ensemble plays that has the ability to catch an audience in the gut not with shock, as in THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, but with the full realization of the tragedy that the audience can see coming, as in HAMLET, from almost the beginning.
Even those who haven't seen the original play have seen the Julia Roberts movie, and the Lifetime cable remake with Queen Latifah pulled 6.5 million viewers - the story's hardly unknown. And guys may have occasional sports team reunions, or may belong to a bowling league, but women have the beauty salon. Women are traditionally the votaries of Beauty, and their salon owner/hairstylist the priestess in Her temple - it is no wonder that American women have for well over a century found friendship, counseling, consolation, and strength in their regular visits to what we once called "the beauty parlor". Hair salon, manicurist's, day spa, whatever we know these establishments as now, they're still, deep down, the beauty parlor, and women still flock there for comradeship, bonding, and advice, whether from The Stylists or from each other. It is an established ritual, and shows no sign of ending even in these latter days of steampunk and grunge.
It is also the underpinning of STEEL MAGNOLIAS. Although it's set in smaller-town northwest Lousiana, and though certain references are dated, the themes haven't changed one bit since its Off-Broadway birth in 1987 (surprisingly, it didn't go to Broadway until 2005, where it had an incredible cast - Delta Burke, Christine Ebersole, and Marsha Mason among them, but where its life was much shorter than its original Off-Broadway, pre-movie run). At Susquehanna Stage it runs only through December 15, but, as with the Broadway run, one wishes it were longer.
Truvy, the owner of the salon, is played here by Colleen Mackison, a newcomer to the SSC stage but not to the world of the salon, or to being an SSC volunteer with hair and makeup. As Truvy, she's the anchor of all the other women, her clients and friends, who make up the regular Saturday morning contingent of the beauty shop in her home. Her assistant, new at the start, is Annelle, who's new in town. Annelle is played by Sara Dodson, who's new to SSC's stage as well but whom we might hope to see again in local theatre. She's a stage veteran nonetheless, and if her Southern accent, though not her natural one, seems perfect, her theatre background at Western Carolina University may have something to do with that. Dodson brings Annelle exactly the right combination of sincerity and unintentional humor - her transition from wild child to preposterously (to everyone but her) devout is nicely handled.
Local theatre veteran Susan K. Barber and Kathryn Williams, who's new to SSC (but is a professional musical theatre veteran) play the mother-daughter duo of M'Lynn and Shelby, who make their appearances on the day of Shelby's wedding, which opens the show. Barber is perfectly cast as M'Lynn, the caring, competent middle-aged woman with too much on her hands, ranging from children's illnesses to her husband's firing guns in town - and to the distress of the neighbors - to chase away birds. Williams' Shelby feels right - a young woman trying to find her way as a newly married young adult in the late 1980's, worrying about everything from household furnishings to the welcome-to-Southern-matronhood rite of the first short hairstyle, as well as her chronic illness. Like Dodson, Williams is possessed of a Southern accent that, if not Louisiana, sounds consistent and natural, and is also based on time spent south of the Mason-Dixon line.