Photo by Deb Kelley

If you love Steel Magnolias as much as I do, you always wait with bated breath to see if the actresses in the production can pull off the believability of long-term bonds of friendship. At opening night of director Aaron Washington's production at Carrollwood Players Theatre, as soon as the cast of six was on stage together, it was easy to see the real, comfortable rapport.

Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias in 1988 in honor of his sister who died of complications of diabetes. The play was made famous by a screen adaption a year later. For those unfamiliar with Steel Magnolias, the story takes place in a Truvy's hair salon in Chinquapin, Louisiana. The story centers upon the relationships between a mother, a daughter, a widow of the ex-mayor, a crotchety neighbor, a mysterious new employee, and the owner of the hair salon - loving friends and frenenemies.

Constructed and designed by the cast, JJ Jackson, Lori Hein, Maggie Stickle-Jenkins, Eric Misener, and Chris McDermott, an exceptional set dressed by Sasha Beers included everything you would expect to find in a salon - tons of hair products, a sit-beneath hair dryer, a realistic-looking washing station, vintage magazines, framed photo of bad, big 80s hair, even a framed photo of Jesse from FULL HOUSE, known for his gorgeous locks in the day. Down to the expert details like peppermints littering Truvy's hair station table, it felt like you were truly visiting a local beauty shop in the late 80s. While getting their hair done, the ladies share everything - from local gossip and recipes to matters of the heart and matters of life and death.

Amber C. Forbes as Truvy is warm, funny, down-to-earth and above all, radiates kindness. She's the best friend you've always wanted. She's grateful "there's no such thing as natural beauty" because it keeps her salon full. With sweet Southern charm and hospitality, Truvy is the glue the bonds the sextet together.

Annelle, Brianna Filippelli as Truvy's brand-new young and inexperienced assistant, is reluctant to talk about her background and how she came to be in Chinquapin. Brianna's slow, steady, precise walk with a tray of coffee and relief at setting it down without a spill is priceless. Her gait, in a way, reveals her life, her growth throughout the play. She slowly and steadily moves from naivety to finding faith and being in total control. Her transformation is a pleasure a watch.

I know the realistic gunshot sound effects designed by Derek Baxter that shook the first act are expected, but the reactions of the cast are absolutely genuine. When Annelle meekly raises her hand and asks if her life is a danger, the audience burst into laughter... which happens many times with Annelle's hijinks.

At the beginning of the play, Shelby is getting her hair done for her wedding later that day. Amy Jackson as Shelby shines as the headstrong daughter who fights to reconcile what she wants out of her life versus the limitations of her body. You feel the playful side of her personality when she quips to Truvy on how to do her mother's hair. "You just tease it and make it look like a brown football helmet."

The relationship between Amy as perpetually upbeat, independent, and stubborn-to-a-fault Shelby and Tynan Pruett as her stalwart, overprotective mother M'Lynn is incredibly real. In act one during an expository scene, Shelby is immediately doted on by all 4 women, while M'Lynn calmly and patiently talks her daughter down from a frightening situation. The two disagree often, but M'Lynn's utter exasperation is filtered through her fierce, protective love of her daughter and desire to keep her healthy. When Shelby tells her mother, "I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special," M'Lynn's expression says more than words ever could.

In the second act, perfect lighting by Joshua Eberhart and Chris McDermott showcases a pivotal monologue and when Tynan breaks down and M'Lynn loses the mask she desperately tries to wear, her performance is gut-wrenching. I doubt there was a dry eye in the entire theatre, including the men who sat behind me who I overheard calling the show 'a chick flick' at intermission, (but still admitted that they enjoyed the show.)

The widow Clairee, exceptionally played by Judy Lowry, struggles with what to do without her husband and mayoral duties as his wife. Judy fits into the role as easily as if she were Olympia Dukakis who made it famous. Some of the most hysterical banter comes from unlikely friends, Clairee and grumpy Oiser played with aplomb by Ann K. Lehman.

As Ouiser, a softie with a hard shell, Ann has the zinger one-liners that make you laugh out loud. "I'm not crazy! I've just been in a very bad mood for 40 years!" Oiser is sharp-tongued and smart-mouthed, but the five see right through her; she will go to the ends of the Earth to help the women she only pretends to reluctantly call her friends.

Aaron's Steel Magnolias has everything you want in a play, an emotional journey with a perfect balance of comedy that doesn't go saccharine and poignant drama that is painfully heartbreaking. Despite being set in the late 80s with big hair wigs beautifully designed by Drew Eberhard, a rotary phone and an old-fangled knob-turning AM/FM radio, the message is timeless. Resilient women can survive anything as long as they have each other.

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From This Author Deborah Bostock-Kelley

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