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