Triad Stage’s “Steel Magnolias” Are Not Yet in Full Bloom

The "Steel Magnolias" cast includes (from left) Elizabeth Meadows Rouse as Truvy, Elisabeth Lewis Corley as Clairee, Elizabeth May as Annelle, Beth Ritson as M'Lynn, Cinny Strickland as Ouiser, and Catherine Charlebois as Shelby (photo by VanderVeen Photographers)
The "Steel Magnolias" cast includes (from left) Elizabeth Meadows Rouse as Truvy, Elisabeth Lewis Corley as Clairee, Elizabeth May as Annelle, Beth Ritson as M'Lynn, Cinny Strickland as Ouiser, and Catherine Charlebois as Shelby (photo by VanderVeen Photographers)

The "Steel Magnolias" cast includes (from left) Elizabeth Meadows Rouse as Truvy, Elisabeth Lewis Corley as Clairee, Elizabeth May as Annelle, Beth Ritson as M'Lynn, Cinny Strickland as Ouiser, and Catherine Charlebois as Shelby (photo by VanderVeen Photographers)
The cast (from left) includes Elizabeth Rouse as Truvy, Elisabeth Corley as Clairee, Elizabeth May as Annelle, Beth Ritson as M'Lynn, Cinny Strickland as Ouiser, and Catherine Charlebois as Shelby (photo by VanderVeen Photographers)

Given its well-deserved reputation as one of the Southeast’s premier regional theaters, it is surprising that Triad Stage’s Steel Magnolias were not yet in full bloom on opening night last Friday. There were lots of rough spots, perhaps because the all-female cast was under-rehearsed by Triangle director John Feltch. That might explain why these six professional actresses were still so tentative in their onstage choices. They did not seem to have fully slipped beneath their characters’ skins, nor did they seem entirely comfortable on the marvelously detailed beauty-shop set created by scenic designer Fred Kinney for Louisiana playwright and screenwriter Robert Harling’s hilarious 1987 hen-fest.

The pedestrian performances of Triad Stage veteran Beth Ritson as concerned mother and unflappable Louisiana Guidance Center counselor M’Lynn Eatenton and Triad Stage first-timer Catherine Charlebois as M’Lynn’s headstrong, chance-taking diabetic daughter Shelby Eatenton Latcherie are a big part of the problem. Ritson lacks the inner fire that smolders beneath M’Lynn’s calm exterior, and Charlebois plays Shelby with such petulance that she never moves the character into Julia Roberts territory.

M’Lynn and Shelby’s rocky mother-daughter relationship — and M’Lynn’s heroic, but ultimately futile sacrifice — is what makes Steel Magnolias such a four-hanky weeper for generations of Southern women (and men). Ritson and Charlebois’ portrayals simply do not move the audience enough … yet … to make Steel Magnolias the heart-tugging tragedy that it should be.

IMPORTANT ASIDE: Steel Magnolias is Robert Harling’s first play, and he wrote it was a way to cope with a real-life tragedy. Just like Shelby, Harling’s 32-year-old younger sister and best friend, pediatric nurse Susan Harling Robinson (1953-85), died from complications related to her diabetes, after having a baby against doctors’ advice. (For details, see People Magazine: http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20098146,00.html.)

So, Shelby’s dramatic arc, which includes reckless disregard for her physical limitations and poor management of her diabetes, matters enormously. That’s why Catherine Charlebois’ spoiled-brat interpretation of the role lacks that special something that made this play a 1987 Off-Broadway hit, which ran for 1,126 performances, and earned Julia Roberts a 1990 Academy Award® nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

Elizabeth Meadows Rouse as good ol’ girl beauty parlor owner/operator Truvy Jones and Elizabeth May as Truvy’s newest employee, novice hair stylist Annelle Dupuy Desoto, provide some comic relief, although Rouse and May don’t fully explore the comic possibilities of the earthy Truvy and the eccentric and fanatically religious Annelle. Cinny Strickland is much better as Chinquapin’s resident curmudgeon Louisa “Ouiser” Boudreaux, and replacement actress Elisabeth Lewis Corley is growing into her role as Ouiser’s best friend, fanatical football fan and radio station KPPD owner Claree Belcher, widow of Mayor Lloyd Belcher.

Steel Magnolias is not up to Triad Stage’s usual high standards, but the cast of Steel Magnolias should get stronger and more confident with each performance. They simply were Not Ready for Prime Time on April 15th

SECOND OPINION: April 20th Raleigh, NC Classical Voice of North Carolina review by Lynn Jessup: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=3235.

Triad Stage presents STEEL MAGNOLIAS at 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 24, 7:30 p.m. April 26-28, 8 p.m. April 29 and 30, 2 and 7:30 p.m. May 1, 7:30 p.m. May 3-5, 8 p.m. May 6 and 7, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. May 8 in the Pyrle Theatre, 232 S. Elm St., Greensboro, North Carolina 27401.

TICKETS: $20-$44.

BOX OFFICE: 866/579-TIXX (8499), 336/272-0160, or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=24297.

SHOW: http://triadstage.com/mainstage/steel/.

SERIES: http://triadstage.com/mainstage/.

PRESENTER/VENUE: http://triadstage.com/.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://triadstage.com/plan/directions.php.

OTHER LINKS:

The 1987 Play: http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=1063 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steel_Magnolias_(play) (Wikipedia), http://www.lortel.org/lla_archive/index.cfm?search_by=show&title=Steel Magnolias (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?ID=386797 (Internet Broadway Database).

The 1989 Film: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steel_Magnolias (Wikipedia) and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098384/ (Internet Movie Database).

The Playwright/Screenwriter: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Harling_(writer) (Wikipedia), http://www.lortel.org/lla_archive/index.cfm?search_by=people&first=Robert&middle=&last=Harling (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=392114 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0363326/ (Internet Movie Database).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.

By Robert W. McDowell

Robert W. McDowell is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer, editor, and critic. He has written theater, film, book, and music previews and reviews for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, and Classical Voice of North Carolina, all based in Raleigh. In 1980-91, he covered business, industry, government, and education for (We the People of) North Carolina magazine, published monthly by N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. In April 2001, McDowell started Robert's Reviews, a FREE weekly e-mail newsletter that provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the performing arts in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. Triangle Review is the latest-and-greatest version of McDowell's original newsletter. (To start your FREE subscription, e-mail robertm748[at]aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) From December 1980 until September 2017, McDowell served on the board of directors of The Cinema, Inc., a Raleigh-based nonprofit film society formed in 1966. He currently publishes a weekly list of FREE advance screenings of movies in the Triangle area. (To have your e-mail address added to this FREE list, e-mail robertm748[at]aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.) McDowell also co-edited and supervised the production of Jim Valvano's Guide to Great Eating (JTV Enterprises, 1984), a 224-page sports celebrity cookbook; and he served as a fact checker for Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead (Pocket Books, 1991).