Review: STEEL MAGNOLIAS at Don Bluth Front Row Theatre

The production runs through April 29th at Don Bluth Front Row Theatre in Scottsdale, AZ.

By: Mar. 26, 2023
Review: STEEL MAGNOLIAS at Don Bluth Front Row Theatre
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At its very core, Robert Harling's STEEL MAGNOLIAS is a play about beauty. Not the cosmetic kind that stylists manufacture with gels and lotions and sprays. Instead, it's the beauty that is revealed in the lines that lie beneath the makeup. The lines that speak of the joys and travails that define one's life. The lines that are measured by the faith and will that are required to handle whatever hand life deals.

And then, STEEL MAGNOLIAS is something even grander. It is about character and the kind of friendship ~ here, of sisterhood ~ that Aristotle said is only possible between "good people, similar in virtue."

In its current staging (in-the-round) at Don Bluth Front Row Theatre, an outstanding ensemble of six seasoned actresses, under the caring and keen direction of Cheryl Schaar, delivers sensitively textured performances that fully and poignantly give meaning to these purposes.

The setting is Truvy's Beauty Parlor in Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana. Here, amid curlers and scissors and lotions, six women let their hair down as they get their dos. They share their joys and they lament the consequences of their personal choices. They tell on the men who inhabit ~ and complicate ~ their lives. They trade barbs with playful affection.

All the while, over the span of three years, they watch over the odyssey of young Shelby from newlywed to motherhood ~ an odyssey not without complications. Shelby has chosen to fulfill her pregnancy despite her doctor's orders, her mother's admonitions, and the risk to her own well-being (she has Type 1 diabetes.)

Rachel Brumfield brings freshness and vitality to her portrayal of Shelby, capturing her innocence of intention, her unfettered optimism, and her tenacious will to beat the odds.

As Shelby's story unfolds, Truvy oversees the salon meet-ups. Breona Conrad delivers a finely polished performance as the business-savvy shepherdess of her flock of customers, eager always to seize upon and mine newly revealed nuggets of local intelligence. It is fortunate and a credit to Schaar's direction that Conrad brings a distinctive and thoroughly enjoyable interpretation to the role rather than a Dolly Parton imitation.

Martha Welty satisfies Truvy's desire for the news of the day. She is a pure delight as Clairee, the town gossip, ever ready with a sassy one-liner ("The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.") but also blessed with a heart of gold.

Nancy Rossman, as next-door neighbor Ouiser, storms on to the stage like a ball of fire with her particular set of grievances and zero tolerance for intrusions on her property. She gives precise definition to "feisty" and "grumpy" ("I'm not crazy. I've just been in a very bad mood for 40 years.").

Rachel Weiss is a joyful surprise as Annelle, a newcomer to town and Truvy's new hire. Overwhelmed by a stroke of misfortune, she is fidgety and nervous at the play's onset. With the support and understanding of the others and divine intervention (she's born again), Annelle transforms into an endearing and uplifting spirit. Weiss travels this transformation with panache.

Amie Bjorklund rounds out this marvelous cast with a stirring performance as Shelby's mother, M'Lynn. She is the stoic monitor of her daughter's journey, carefully offering counterpoints to her daughter's determination but nevertheless yielding to Shelby's fateful decisions.

As the play reaches its crescendo, Bjorklund, the good mother, delivers the play's power punch to the heart. For all the laughter that has preceded it (thanks to the playwright's ingenious crafting of hilarious one-liners, true to the accents of the region), M'Lynn's final monologue is a virtual tear-jerker ~ an intensely graceful evocation of love and acceptance of life's curveballs ~ "I was there when this wonderful person drifted into this world, and I was there when she drifted out. It was the most precious moment of my life so far."

The five remaining magnolias embrace in a circle of infinite love where all distinctions of personality and manners evaporate. Their steeliness is the mettle of survivors but tempered into an unbreakable bond of sisterhood and empathy.

This cast has captured the audience in its net of compassion and mutual fidelity. The richness of this production lies not only in their exemplary performances but also, and most importantly, in Director Schaar's astute decisions and sensitive direction. She has ensured that each character is distinctively defined. The timing and blocking are perfect, even to the extent that, as Truvy and Annelle arrange hair, they never miss a beat. The set design is spot-on salon.

The enduring popularity of the play lies in its humanity. As Truvy declares, "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion." It will be the audience's as well as the last act's lights dim and audiences depart the theatre with a rush of joy in their heart and a tear in their eye.

STEEL MAGNOLIAS runs through April 29th at:

Don Bluth Front Row Theatre ~ 8989 E Via Linda, Ste 118, Scottsdale, AZ ~ ~ 480-314-0841

Photo credit to DBFRT ~ L to R back row: Conrad, Rossman, Welty, Weiss. Seated L to R: Brumfield, Bjorklund


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