BWW Review: Circle Players' 2017-18 Season Continues With STEEL MAGNOLIAS
We Southerners take our literary history seriously, whether it's a book, a poem, a novel or a play - no matter the genre, we are proud to read about our way of life and the things that we believe make us so very special. Such is the case with Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias, which debuted in 1987 to near unanimous acclaim only to gain in popularity and adulation in the intervening three decades. Whether it's a feature film, a made-for-TV movie or live onstage, Harling's tale of six Louisiana women and their shared experiences captured in a series of snapshots from their lives is beloved and somewhat revered.
In fact, Steel Magnolias has become some a warhorse of contemporary theater - hardly a season passes without one theater company here and there (or everywhere, truth be told) adding a new production of it to put butts in the oftentimes hard-to-fill seats - to the point that some people are quick to bemoan its popularity and to lament yet another stage visit to Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, for several Saturday mornings spent at Truvy's Beauty Shop. In my career, I've seen close to 20 different productions of Steel Magnolias and I have to admit there are times when I've scoffed at its inclusion among upcoming shows from whatever theater company that's claiming it for that particular period in time.
However, I've come to accept that Steel Magnolias is just as important part of Southern literature and Southern theater as anything written by Tennessee Williams, Harper Lee or William Faulkner - and, admittedly, there never would have been four Designing Women if Harling's play hadn't make such a big and wondrous splash when it debuted. For that, I am eternally grateful for all the moments I've been been entertained by Truvy, M'Lynn, Annelle, Clairee, Ouiser and Shelby (and Julia, Suzanne, Mary Jo and Charlene).
Despite its sometimes-dated appeal (Steel Magnolias should always be presented as a period piece, so redolent is it of time mid-1980s when Harling was writing it to exorcise the grief he experienced when his own beloved sister died far too young), the play speaks warmly and authentically of the friendships shared by women amid the hustle-and-bustle of their daily lives spent caring for everyone around them and who seek out the weekly respite from that to focus for an hour, or often far less than that, on their own needs.
The play's setting may be a small town in Northern Louisiana, but there is a universality about Steel Magnolias that could place it just about anywhere people live and work and love one another. In fact, having grown up in a small West Tennessee town myself, I remember very clearly - with enough nostalgia and sentiment to make my eyes tear up at the very thought - my own mother's Saturday regimen: At 9:30 each week for as long as I can remember, she was dropped off at Wanda's Beauty Shop in Bethel Springs, where for 45 minutes to an hour she would be pampered and attended to in a way usually reserved for everyone else in her orbit. When, as an adult visiting "back home" for a weekend, I would be called upon to chauffeur my mama to Wanda's, I would sometimes hang around to catch up on the hometown gossip and see the ladies who had watched me grow up since the day I was born.
It's scenes like that which make the events that transpire at Truvy's every Saturday morning among the ladies from the neighborhood ring with such genuine, down-home appeal, the heart of every smalltown matriarch reverberating through every line, the laughter engendered by Harling's delightful dialogue reminding us of people long-loved and long-remembered. Seeing a production of Steel Magnolias is so much like going home for a reunion of long-lost relatives that no matter how much dread I feel at the prospect of seeing yet another rendition of the script, there's always something that will touch my heart and, ultimately, make me happy to return to my roots once again.
Now onstage at the Z. Alexander Looby Theatre in a production by Circle Players, Middle Tennessee's oldest community theater organization, Steel Magnolias is given an altogether typical mounting: Director Melissa Williams has assembled a six-woman ensemble of actors who are brought together to create a fictionalized world in which multitudes of real memories seem to exist. The performances on opening night clearly were not as seamless as they will be with each subsequent show - friendships, whether real and imaginary, require a lot of time and effort to work as we'd like them to and the Southern accents affected by the actresses are indeed a mixed bag - and some actresses seem more adept at bringing their characters to life than others perhaps.
But Harling's story of female camaraderie and the kind of family values we should all be espousing retains its impact, and at the end of that first night performance the audience leapt to its feet for what I suspect will be an every-night occurrence for Circle Players' production.
Among Williams' ensemble (which includes the director, taking on the role of Ouiser - one she seems pre-ordained to play and which she does with much vigor - due to the late withdrawal due to the health reasons by the actress originally cast), Kamryn Boyd nearly walks away with the entire production, part and parcel, with her understated and quietly effective portrayal of Annelle, the young hairstylist whose life is enriched the moment she enters Truvy's beauty shop in search of a job. Kathleen Jaffe is warmly welcoming as the larger-than-life Truvy, who has some of the script's best lines and who keeps the show moving through its four seasons of life in the not-so-distant past. Linda Speir is lovely as the doyenne of Chinquapin Parish - Clairee Belcher, the former first lady of the town - who captures the essence of every grand Southern lady in her demeanor.
Pat Street plays M'Lynn, the much-put-upon wife and mother - and counselor - who protects the townspeople's secrets with a sense of circumspect benevolence, with Hannah Reynolds in her stage debut as her daughter, Shelby, whose failing health amid her resolute determination to lead life to its fullest, provides the more dramatic moments in Harlng's richly drawn and sharply written testimony to friendship and family.
Steel Magnolias. By Robert Harling. Directed by Melissa Williams. Presented by Circle Players. At Z. Alexander Looby Theatre, Nashville. Through April 8. For details, go to www.CirclePlayers.net. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).