BWW Previews: STEEL MAGNOLIAS at Theatre Tallahassee
Steel Magnolias: Shades of Bashful and Blush in Tallahassee
Steel Magnolias is a play that deals with many stereotypically southern touchpoints over the course of the show.
There's gossip, beauty, religion, friendship, cattiness, bonding, comfort food, petty fighting, not-so-petty fighting, and the fact that the calm waters of the social scene can be stirred up by the smallest change in routine.
Therefore, Shelby's wedding day creates big waves in that social pond.
Many viewers are probably familiar with the plot of Steel Magnolias due to the hit movie starring Julia Roberts. The play is a different production with a less frenetic, more focused tone. Written by Robert Harling to process events in his real life involving his sister, six women carry the entire show. (In the Theatre Tallahassee production, it's of note that almost all members of the crew are also female, somewhat by design.)
The Theatre Tallahassee version, with an all-female cast and an almost completely all-female crew, draws us into the women's lives, but does not buttonhole itself into being a "women's issues play." It would be easy to default to a caricature of southern women being southern, but this production doesn't do that, to its credit.
We find ourselves observing all the action from the perspective of Truvy's beauty shop, as The Stylists and customers face us in the audience.
Truvy, played by Michelle Nickens, is the fulcrum around which the play's activity revolves. It's her shop (and home) where all the action takes place. Nickens brings a calming, unflappable sensibility to her role. As an audience member, you get the sense she's seen it all; it would take more drama than the women (or men) of the fictional Louisiana parish of Chinquapin can dish out to shake her up.
Annelle, played by Theresa Davis, is new to Chinquapin. We can intuit her reluctance to open up and disclose the complications of her life.
Clairee, played by Dorothea Syleos, is a woman every small southern community has. It was easy to be lured into the sense that Clairee wasn't going to have much of anything strongly worded to say (although she portrayed a modicum of a slow burn type of skepticism throughout the beginning scenes), but she portrays a depth of emotion later in the show that was clearly simply simmering until it was time to erupt.
The onus of portraying the widest range of emotions is, to me, on Shelby, played by Megan Preston. Portraying the mother-daughter relationship, especially one so fraught with expectations and heavy emotions, is a challenge. As Shelby, Preston engages us audience members into her world of "blush and bashful" (her wedding colors).
On the flip side of the mother-daughter relationship, Rachael Kage plays M'Lynn, Shelby's mother. M'Lynn conveys her discomfort with her lot in life (a less than attentive husband, a daughter with a Type 1 diabetes, the constant struggle to maintain her footing in Chinquapin).
After meeting these five, Ouiser, played by Debbie Frost, throws open door and the room changes. What town doesn't have a Ouiser? Frost's Ouiser was one of the most drastically played (to good effect) roles in the show. A strong personality, and the kind of southern woman who is more inclined to be in charge than to use any filter at all.
This show draws us in to the women's lives, but does not buttonhole itself into being a "women's issues play." It would be easy to default to a caricature of southern women being southern, but this production doesn't do that, to its credit.
Playwright Robert Harling based Steel Magnolias on his experiences with his sister. I read that one of his goals was to represent the mix of serious and silly that weaves women's lives together, even in difficult times.
The element of the play that I would have tweaked a bit (and an element that I believe is likely to gel as the cast transitions out of preview) is for everything to be a little "more." By that I mean: as an audience, we are on a trip with these women through a span of years and a wide range of life events: weddings, births, deaths, friendships ebbing and flowing. In every case except Ouiser, the actors could have benefited from avoiding nuance and diving headlong into the southernness of it all. Not to the point of creating cartoonish likenesses, but to the point of creating more defined scenarios.
When discussing a trip to a regional theatre, Ouiser says "I support art. I just don't wanna see it." In the case of Steel Magnolias, I encourage you to do both. Support it. See it.
Steel Magnolias is directed by Melissa Findley. For more information: http://theatretallahassee.org/2017-2018-season/steel-magnolias/
Photo credits: Caroline Nieves