Steel Magnolias has become one of the most commonly produced plays in the United States. Full of tears and laughter (“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion”) the Southern story has become beloved to people from all over the country, no matter where they live. Currently, the Taproot Theatre Company is producing this classic comedy here in Seattle. Steel Magnolias plays through February 29, 2020. Get tickets and more info here.
The play has one setting, Truvy Jones’ neighborhood hair salon, and revolves around the close-knit, upper-bourgeois klatch of women that gather there. It begins on the day of Shelby Eatenton’s wedding, and Truvy is hiring a new hair-designer named Annelle Dupuy-Desoto. Annelle worries her work is ‘poofy’, but she is hired on the spot as the ladies of the neighborhood start to come into the shop. First to arrive is Clairee Belcher, the former Mayor’s wife, whose passion for football leads her to buy the local radio station. Next on stage is M’Lynn Eatenton and her daughter, the bride-to-be, Shelby. These two enter in the midst of a family disagreement. Despite the fact that Shelby is a severe diabetic, she insists on having a baby of her own, ignoring all the health warnings that the doctors have given her. The last to enter the salon is Ouiser Boudreaux, a curmudgeon who camouflages her good intentions with her barbed comments. As several years pass within the show, these women share all the good times and the bad that life presents but hold together with the strength of steel magnolias.
The six women (there are no men seen in the show) of the cast all do well enough jobs with their roles, and while the show is definitely enjoyable, it lacks the strong punch due to the large following of the cult-like status of the film, or the over-familiarity of the stage production being produced. These ladies make these now iconic roles their own by adding their individual interpretations to these characters. Truvy (played by Casi Pruitt) is portrayed as the local busy body, running the center of gossip in this particular Louisiana Parish. Ms. Pruitt does so with good nature inquisitiveness, and without a malicious bone in her body. Clairee (played by Marlette Buchanan) gives the former First Lady of Chinquapin Louisiana a sense of regality with a subdued, tranquil presence, perhaps a tad more than should be required as her delivery seemed very even-keeled – unfortunately this included the shows most recognizable scene from the second act. [No spoilers]
M’Lynn (played by April Poland) is seen as a woman who likes to be in control over most aspects of her life. She is seen as a bit uptight, especially when confronted with challenges from her headstrong daughter. We see glimpses of the character’s tumultuous buildup except the emotional charge is more stoic, and falls flat without the raw emotion needed to get the audience to feel empathy with how the character faces her personal challenges. Ouiser (played by Kim Morris) is the one that most people single out as a favorite from this show. Ms. Morris puts more emphasis on the character’s compassion and humanity rather than the sharp barbs and sarcastic commentary that are so readily quoted from the play. Shelby (played by Melanie Hampton) is perfect as the bouncy and vivacious bride-to-be, and unofficial center of the play’s storyline. Ms. Hampton brings energy to the character showing the conflicts of the expectations of being a ‘good Southern daughter and wife’; opposed to doing what she feels would make her happy. Through an infectious smile and pure charm, the character endears herself to the audience, and we easily get swept up in her joys and dramas.
Annelle (played by Arika Matoba) is the standout character of this production, being the most (appearing) vulnerable character among the set of strong women. Ms. Matoba brings naiveté to her confused character’s disposition that easily allows us to identify with her. It is the character of Annelle that shows the most growth during the play’s timeframe, even though hers is not the main focus of the play. Ms. Matoba allows the audience to feel her character’s fears and hesitations as she begins to find her own independence. We share her religious devotional passion, even if we don’t identify with it, because of the non-presumptuous (and humorous) way that it is served.
Any production of Steel Magnolias is hard-pressed not to be compared with the iconic movie version. These women make the roles their own (especially that of Annelle) showing the right combination of how they deal with heavy emotions through humor. It is a testament to both the writing, and especially the actors involved, that despite the over-familiarity of the script, the punches and humor are still delivered with good timing.
Steel Magnolias opened on Broadway April 04, 2005 and ran for 136 performances. The author Robert Harling based the characters on the women he observed growing up in the South. The original cast consisted of: Delta Burke (Truvy), Christine Embersole (M’Lynn), Rebecca Gayheart (Shelby), Marsha Mason (Ouiser), Lily Rabe (Annelle) and Frances Sternhagen (Clairee). The 1989 film starred: Dolly Parton (Truvy), Sally Field (M’Lynn), Julia Roberts (Shelby), Shirley MacLaine (Ouiser), Daryl Hannah (Annelle), and Olympia Dukakis (Clairee). In 2011, Lifetime Television remade the film (with mixed results) for the small screen with the following cast: Jill Scott (Truvy), Queen Latifah (M’Lynn), Condola Rashad (Shelby), Alfre Woodard (Ouiser), Adepero Odyue (Annelle) and Phylicia Rashad (Clairee).