BWW Review: Roxy Regional's STEEL MAGNOLIAS Takes You Back Home
Nothing seems to fire up so much debate among the theaterati than the announcement of an upcoming production of a show considered overdone, old-fashioned or somehow hackneyed and quasi-provincial. Take for example, Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias - the somewhat nostalgic and Southern-fried seriocomic tale of six women who gather every Saturday morning in a Louisiana beauty shop to have their bouffants teased, their shags trimmed, popular recipes swapped and the lives of their neighbors vivisected in the relative sanctity of a women-only establishment - that has been a part of contemporary literature since its 1987 premiere at off-Broadway's WPA Theatre "up north" in New York.
In the intervening 30 years since the ladies of Chinquapin Parish (located in northwest Louisiana) first became a part of American theatrical nomenclature (of a Southern bent), there have been more productions mounted than you could shake a stick at and the down-home wisdom and witticisms spoken by Harling's characters have become as much a part of our colloquiality as "y'all" and "mama 'n' them." In fact, imploring someone to down a glass of OJ is so often accompanied by "Drink your juice, Shelby" that, perhaps more often than not, some people may not even realize the genesis of the phrase in Harling's heartfelt script that is based upon intimate and life-changing events in the life of his own family.
Even I, as proudly Southern as I could possibly be, have been known to denigrate Steel Magnolias: Having seen one - or seventeen - too many productions of the deftly written comedy that's tinged with pathos and sentimentality, I even wrote that had I been in possession of a firearm, I'd have exacted some hateful revenge on a particularly poorly acted version of the play. And I vowed "never again."
But there is just something about Steel Magnolias that I simply cannot resist - just as certainly as I will always be in the audience for Oklahoma! or Show Boat, no matter how their detractors try to downplay their importance in the evolution of the quintessentially American genre of musical theater - and I can almost always be counted upon to wax philosophic about the impact of such titles on audiences since, presumably, Jesus was a boy.
Steel Magnolias, you see, is as much a part of being Southern as is iced tea, Duke's mayonnaise, blooming magnolia trees, getting out of school for cotton pickin', or kudzu overtaking the old home place located in the farthest recesses of your memory. Hell, not liking it is like stepping on your granddaddy's grave or refusing to accept the fact that you were raised in a racist society if your junior high school's mascot was Colonel Rebel.
Sure you might cringe as some of the hoary dialogue, but durn it you're gonna laugh out loud at Truvy's assertion that "there's no such thing as natural beauty" or Ouiser Boudreaux's claim that she appreciates art but doesn't want to be exposed to it. And that's because, if you think about it objectively, the women in Harling's play are just like the women in your own family or hometown who loved you through life no matter what the hell you were up to in the big, bad city. They represent so much of who we all are - or once were, perhaps - that seeing them onstage can still make your cheeks burn with embarrassment when you think about some of your own hijinks during a misspent youth whether you were trying to convince a Mississippi highway patrolmen you weren't carrying a gun in the pockets of your shorts or talking to the preacher of the First Baptist Church about why you never thought about being baptized.
Make no mistake about it, y'all: Even a less-than-stellar production of Steel Magnolias is gonna whisk you back home, no matter if you grew up debating Bama v. Auburn, learning the finer points of making a Sazerac cocktail or the simple pleasure of a homegrown tomato and homemade mayo on white bread your mama just made. And that's why we may try to act all sophisticated and shit when we're debating about an artistic director's decision to schedule a new production for all the would-be Truvys, Clairees and M'Lynns in your local theater community - 'cause Steel Magnolias reminds us from whence we came and that can somehow get your panties in a wad if you don't watch out and get above your raising.
Now onstage in an entertaining, if somewhat uneven, production at Clarksville's Roxy Regional Theatre, Steel Magnolias still can have an amazing impact on its audiences. In fact, on the second night of the four-week run at the Roxy, the show's laugh lines were still landing with a unique precision, the audience laughing and guffawing in much the same way we suspect the first audience responded back in 1987. And while we might quibble with some of director Ryan Bowie's choices - he is, for all intents and purposes, a damn Yankee no matter how long he makes his home, both artistic and personal, in the Queen City of the Cumberland - you cannot argue with the audience and their complete embrace of the characters and their stories and the love and camaraderie celebrated in the play.
Two of Nashville's most accomplished actresses - Jama Bowen as the hotsy-totsy, heartwarming Truvy, and Linda Spier as town doyenne Clairee Belcher - lead the six-woman ensemble who bring the characters to life with grace and grit. Although opening week jitters might account for the various dropped lines that littered the stage (let's face it, I've seen the show 5,637 times, so I know the script pretty well by now - and the payoff to M'Lynn's close to the end remark about her football helmet hair doesn't have the impact it should unless Shelby tees up the ball for her in Act One), the actresses nonetheless seemed confident enough in their performances to warrant the laughter and applause that rained down upon them throughout the show's two-plus hours.
Stacy Turner is believable as M'Lynn and her performance is perhaps more meaningful thanks to the fact that she played Shelby in an earlier Roxy iteration of the play (yep, I was there for that one, too) and that knowledge - both hers for the experience and mine for the history of reviewing theatre for a mighty long spell - informs this production with a sense of tradition and family that underscores life in a university town where theater has always been a vital aspect of life. Ashley Harris is delightful as Shelby, even when she's clad in a butt-ugly shag wig in anticipation of her character's offstage kidney transplant.
Mairzy Yost, as Ouiser, gets to deliver some of the funniest lines in Harling's memorable script and does so with a zestful verve that ensures they land where they ought even if I remain perplexed about her fur cape that seems dreadfully out of place during a June wedding. The supremely talented Emily Rourke's Annelle Dupuy is played more broadly than needed to convey her story, but Rourke never fails to win over her audience with the evolution of the young beautician over the course of the play.
Bowen's over-the-top performance as Truvy is not unexpected and she is able to play the outspoken wife and mother with sharply drawn humor and a true sense of knowing who she is. Similarly, Spier is ideally cast as Clairee, exuding undiluted Southern charm and good comic timing in what may be her best performance in a career that has seen her play all manner of Dixiefied heroines. It helps, of course, that Spier's Clairee looks as if she's just stepped out of a bandbox - her costumes are extraordinarily spot-on for the town's former first lady and her regal carriage is typical of smalltown Southern matrons.
Bowie's deft direction ensures an enjoyable revival of a much-loved script and his set design (co-created with the hard-working Rourke) provides the perfect backdrop for all the action that transpires over the several weekends covered in the script (although I'm still scratching my watch - or winding my butt - trying to figure out what's the deal with that upside down-hung screendoor).
Steel Magnolias. By Robert Harling. Directed by Ryan Bowie. Presented by The Roxy Regional Theatre, Clarksville. Running through August 19. For tickets, call (931) 645-7699 or go online at www.roxyregionaltheatre.org for details. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission)