BWW Reviews: CATCO's STEEL MAGNOLIAS More Aluminum Than Titanium
It's a safe assumption that if you are female, you have more than likely already emptied a box of Kleenex over "Steel Magnolias" at some point in your life. The 1989 movie version which featured an iconic cast, has deservedly earned its chick-flick staple status. However, as a sold-out crowd at the Riffe Center would attest, it's a show that is at once classic and ageless, with its development of the deep friendship that 6 southern women develop as they mingle regularly at the town's beauty parlor.
Unlike its motion picture counterpart, the stage version of "Steel Magnolias" takes place entirely inside Truvy Jones' (Gail Griffith) carport-turned-beauty salon business. The set, constructed by Michael S. Brewer, is a gawdy, delightful 80's salon throwback with exquisite attention to detail, and thoughtfully accessorized (by Aveda Institute of Columbus) down to the last hair-sprayed tease out. Given the single set, the focus becomes clearly on the relationships of the characters within its walls, and therein lies the problem with this production- while the cast has some great individual performances, they never quite convince me that they are lifelong friends. In fact, the entire first act came off as scripted and forced, not the tightly woven, genuine "family" forged through years of confidences shared over manicures and rollering.
Establishing the "delicate" magnolia women as loving and supportive while layered with the "steel" of their snarky one-liners, and blunt, but kind-hearted ribbing, is admittedly hard to when the storyline has little plot advancement in Act 1, but all the more essential. Gail Griffith's Truvy is perhaps the most genuine, and her character is the emotional backbone of the cast- sweet, but steady. Josie Merkle, as recently widowed congressman's wife, Clairee Belcher, is witty and poised, and everything you'd expect a polished Southern woman to be. Jackie Bates, as her chronically grumpy friend, Ouiser Boudreaux, has some of the funniest lines of the show and delivers them flawelessly to create some much needed levity and depth to a largely stagnant first act. Surprisingly, the most delightful character throughout, however, belongs to the naïve, anxious, Annelle (Kelly Strand)- a newcomer to the town who has just been employed as a stylist at Truvy's. Strand's nervous, quirky, and innocent portrayal makes her character much more endearing and emotionally compelling than the script's darling, Shelby (Andrea Schmitt). In fact, both the characters of Shelby and her mother, M'Lynn Eatenton (Sarah Behrens) are so flat and rote in the first act, that they are largely forgettable. Gorgeous lighting by Designer Jakyung Seo, saves the otherwise bland climactic scene in which Shelby announces her health-jeopardizing pregnancy to close Act I. The characters themselves are generally "there", but their interconnectedness seems superficial and forced, and that's a huge disappointment.
What Act I lacks in plot advancement, Act II barrels through at break-neck speed. We no sooner find out that Shelby has a son (who is never seen), then she's gone. The stage version also lacks the development of her relationship with her husband, Jackson, and M'Lynn's relationship with Shelby's father, Drumm. Behrens' character tackles much of the dialogue of Act II, and it is only then that M'Lynn becomes a character that the audience can attach itself to emotionally, and its more of a sucker-punch to the gut response than the sorrowful mourning of a life cut way too short. Again, the supporting women are the emotional vitality of Act II, with Ouiser, Clairee, Truvy, and Annelle being the ones the ones that I was most curious to see how their stories played out, and left longing for an epilogue update on each. This production of "Steel Magnolias" is charming, at times wry and witty, and manages a bit of endearment here and there, but CATCO's Magnolias are only a slight resemblance of the rock-solid southern belle friendships the story is most memorable for. The show itself is lengthy- almost 3 hours long with a 15 minute intermission- and one can hope that as it is only beginning its run, with each performance, the cast will become more interwoven and develop the strength and sass that makes "Steel Magnolias" a show worthy of its stage and screen predecessors.
CATCO's "Steel Magnolias" plays in Studio One of the Riffe Center 3/26-4/13. For show times and ticketing information, please go to: http://catco.org/shows/2013-2014/steel-magnolias
Photo Credit: Ben Sostrom