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Review: STEEL MAGNOLIAS at Everyman Theatre

A Tragicomedy of Community and of Generations

Review: STEEL MAGNOLIAS at Everyman Theatre

There's an extraordinary pleasure theatergoers are taking everywhere now, as the companies that bring us plays and musicals struggle to their feet, and in-person audiences reappear after seventeen months' hibernation. Audiences need each other as much as the performers need audiences; in the aisles we feed off each other's energy, helping each other get the jokes, experience the pathos, and admire the performances. Steel Magnolias, which by now must qualify as an "old reliable" show (having been through thousands of performances Off-Broadway, on Broadway, on the West End and everywhere else, not to mention large and small screens, since its 1987 premiere) is an excellent way to make our return, with plenty of jokes, plenty of pathos, and plenty of opportunities for actors to shine. Baltimore's Everyman Theatre's lovely production, running onstage through September 5 and online through September 19, makes the most of these assets.

For those unfamiliar with Robert Harling's tragicomedy, it follows several seasons in the lives of a group of six women who staff or are customers of a small hair salon in a fictional northwest Louisiana town. On the gossamer-thin surface, they are a quarrelsome group, given to insulting, confronting and gossiping about each other and everyone else in their circle, especially including the men in their offstage lives. But that surface appearance lacks credibility even for a moment: these women transparently love and support each other, however much they criticize and argue, and however many one-liner putdowns they lavish on each other. The most important call for mutual support over these seasons emanates from the heroic risk one of them takes, a risk that can bring mortal consequences, and which precipitates another of them taking serious risks as well. The group weathers this crisis and others as the seasons progress.

At the outset, Truvy (Megan Anderson), the de facto leader of the group and the proprietor of the beauty shop, is joined by tyro hairdresser Annelle (Heather A. Gibson), who over the course of the action will become something of a surrogate daughter to Truvy. The special customer of the day as the play begins is soon-to-be bride Shelby (Katie Kleiger), whose interactions with her mother M'Lynn (Beth Hylton) are conflicted if caring. And if Truvy and M'Lynn are the mothers, and Annelle and Shelby the daughters, then the two other members of the group, Ouiser (Helen Hedman) and Clairee (Nancy Robinette), become something like grandmothers. Like many grandmothers, they have their own issues which they share only reluctantly with the younger generation, but of course in the end they too will receive help in addressing their problems, even as they stand by and bear concerned witness to the bigger dramas of the younger members of this ersatz clan.

The biggest drama, to be sure, concerns Shelby and M'Lynn. And though Shelby is the fulcrum of the drama, the most important role belongs to M'Lynn. She has a towering emotional breakdown at one point, and the success of the play depends in large measure on whether the actor portraying her gets it right. I doubt that anyone who has ever assayed M'Lynn's role would fail to number that scene as among the most challenging she has undertaken. Awash in a sea of powerful and conflicting emotions, M'Lynn must give each its cathartic due. And Hylton is more than equal to the task; I watched in amazement as she erupted, seeming to leave no unincinerated emotional fuel, then did it again - and again.

I suppose the catchphrase for the show might be "come for the laughs, stay for the drama," but what probably distinguishes Steel Magnolias from lesser tragicomedies is the way that the two are intertwined. The jokes develop the characters (it figures, for example, that Truvy's motto would be "There's no such thing as natural beauty"). The jokes inform the arguments, and build the dynamics of the piece. The moments of hilarity and the moments of tragedy are usually the same.

In praising Hylton, I do not mean to suggest discredit elsewhere; Hylton has a higher peak to climb, but the others scale their own mountains outstandingly. For example, Anderson, who has over the years demonstrated that she can inhabit just about any character with ease, eases right into Truvy, thoroughly persuasive that she has been wielding the shears and marshalling the village gossip for years. And there are challenges that confront the performer taking on Shelby: to be convincingly radiant in good times and bad, toughly independent of but not unloving toward a mother with domineering tendencies and (at times) a very different agenda. Kleiger masters these challenges beautifully. Annelle must become the voice of a conservative kind of Christian faith the other members of the family, and perhaps a good slice of the audience, find off-putting, while still making credible her acceptance by the others; I suspect such a task is even more difficult in these days of culture wars than when the play came out, and I thought Gibson finessed that trick nicely. The two "grandmas," both curmudgeons, have to manage to be lovable curmudgeons while starved for most of the play of much opportunity to be lovable, and Hedman and Robinette did in fact manage.

I think it's often a sign of excellent direction when it seems as if the members of the ensemble weren't being directed at all, but simply inhabiting their characters. And that's the compliment this production elicits; director Casey Stangl's touch just wasn't apparent. But there may be no higher compliment.

Special hat tips are also owed to the set by Milagros Ponce De Leon, which made full use of the Everyman Theatre's capacious stage, and to the wig design by Denise O'Brien with the assistance of Linda Cavell and consultant Jennifer Milch, whose mission evidently was to remind us of hair fashions in a very different time and place, and to whoever selected the great combination of vintage songs that populated the music cues.

Finally, a word needs to be said about where Steel Magnolias fits within the programming of today's theater. Almost everyone concerned with the theater now is aware of current struggles over representation and political consciousness, and how that affects what gets chosen to produce and who gets to be part of the productions that result. Steel Magnolias affirms the denizens of Truvy's beauty salon with its all-White clientele (though here, unlike in the original productions, Annelle, the junior hairdresser serving that clientele, is portrayed by an actor of color). It affirms a locale that in real life would have been de facto segregated, in a conservative state. It extols this world without acknowledging, let alone confronting, these problems in any way (while making room for Annelle's fundamentalist faith, it should be added, though there is, to be fair, a dig at the kind of homophobia that often accompanies such faith). In short, the choice of this show might be thought to send a group of wrong messages. Obviously, a lot depends on what else and who else is involved in the rest of the season. But I was glad to see this play as a choice, not only because we need some theatrical comfort food at this point, but also because modern audiences can be trusted to set Steel Magnolias in the context of a different theatrical moment. To have been produced as a new play today, it would have had to present a more nuanced picture of the racial and partisan realities of Southern life. And it would probably also have had to take a more serious measure of the involvement and perhaps complicity of these women in the patriarchy that surrounds their outpost of female solidarity. But I don't doubt that Everyman's audiences get all this.

So this is definitely a show to take in as you begin to resume your theatergoing life. And if you're taking it in in person (as opposed to online), then naturally, as is rapidly becoming the standard everywhere, you'll need to present proof of vaccination, and keep your mask on through the performance. A small price to pay.

Steel Magnolias, by Robert Harling, directed by Casey Stangl, presented on stage through September 5 and online August 27 through September 19, by Everyman Theatre. Onstage at 315 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201, tickets $29-$69; online tickets $19.99. Tickets at 410-752-2208 or . Proof of vaccination and masking required. Recommended for 10+.

Pictured above L to R: Beth Hylton, Heather A. Gibson, Helen Hedman, Nancy Robinette, Katie Kleiger, Megan Anderson. Photo credit: Mark Garvin

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