“Steel Magnolias,” the semi-autobiographical play written by Robert Harling, has been a hit with audiences (both Southern and non) since it first opened in 1987. The story, set in Louisiana, follows a group of fiery women as they endure life’s ups and downs. There’s Truvy (Susan Bristow), the sassy owner of a self-named salon where the women come to gossip and bond; sweet Clairee (Karen Tutt); rough-around-the-edges Ouiser (Becky Goretzka); and the young and impressionable Annelle (Tracey Gansel). At the heart of the play, however, is loving, strong-willed mother M’Lynn (Sharon Moyer) and her beautiful but tragically ill daughter, Shelby (Rachel Strickland), who suffers from a severe form of diabetes. Though mother and daughter butt heads on many subjects, their relationship is one comprised of love—even if the other characters sometimes have to remind them of that fact.
No production of “Steel Magnolias” could (or should!) play out without an effectively designed set for “Truvy’s,” where all the action takes place. Fortunately for Harnett Regional Theatre’s production, set designers Rick Stephenson and Jacob Godwin have outdone themselves. Truvy’s comes to life with bright colors, authentic 80s hair dryers, and even some classic throwback pictures —including 80s-era shots of Madonna, Johnny Depp, and, of course, Dolly Parton—displayed on the pink walls. Between scenes, poignantly appropriate country songs provide the perfect atmosphere.
Further driving home the 80s vibes are Amy Langdon’s over-the-top costumes, which, to put it mildly, don’t shy away from color or glitz. While the set and costumes are definitely attention-grabbing, they do not overshadow the strong performances. “Steel Magnolias,” is a character-driven play, one that relies heavily on dialogue, strong characterization, and a cast of gifted women to be effective, and all those elements can be found here.
Strickland’s Shelby strikes the perfect variation of strong-will and sad vulnerability, and the young actress gracefully tackles the infamous scene in which Shelby goes into diabetic shock. She gives subtle hints that something is amiss with Shelby well before the shock takes hold and then, when the time comes, bears down and really gives her all to the performance. Bristow’s Truvy is another major standout. Obviously no newcomer to the stage, Bristow knows how to bring out Truvy’s sassy philosophy on life and, at the same time, gently hint at some of Truvy’s own disappointments and unfulfilled wishes, and her stage presence is immense; at times, it’s difficult to not watch Bristow. Gansel also holds her own on stage, turning out a performance that is more than a little reminiscent of Darryl Hannah’s portrayal of Annelle in the iconic 1989 film. Goretzka and Tutt provide comedic relief in their roles of Ouiser and Clairee, respectively, and Moyer gives a surprisingly unique spin to M’Lynn, creating a character who maintains her strength by maintaining some degree of emotional distance. It should also be mentioned that the chemistry between the actresses is palpable, making the funny moments funnier, the sad moments sadder, and the entire story more believable.
Through subtle choices, director Angela Martin has brought to life a very intimate version of this classic play. Viewers will feel like they are growing and changing (and gossiping!) right along with the other members of the “Truvy’s clique” and will likely be saddened to leave this immersive world behind when the curtains close.
Harnett Regional Theatre presents STEEL MAGNOLIAS at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21 and 22 and Feb 27-March 1, and 2:30 p.m. March 2 in the Stewart Theater, 114 N. Wilson Ave., Dunn, North Carolina 28334.
TICKETS: $15 ($10 children under 18 and seniors 60+).
BOX OFFICE: 910-984-7533 or https://squareup.com/market/harnett-regional-theatre.
2013-14 SEASON: http://onlinehrt.org/season/.
PRESENTER: http://onlinehrt.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/onlinehrt.
Steel Magnolias (1987 Off-Broadway and 2005 Broadway play): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=1063 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steel_Magnolias_%28play%29 (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: http://www.thepublictheatre.org/education/study_guides/1997-98/Steel_Magnolias.html (The Public Theatre of Lewiston, ME).
Robert Harling (Natchitoches, LA playwright): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Harling_%28writer%29 (Wikipedia).
Angela Martin (Clement, NC director and drama teacher): https://www.facebook.com/angela.martin.1460693 (Facebook page).
Susie Potter is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer and editor. She is a 2009 graduate of Raleigh’s Meredith College, where she majored in English. She holds graduate degrees in teaching and American literature from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. In addition to her work for Triangle Arts and Entertainment, she is an award-winning author of short fiction. Her works have appeared in The Colton Review, Raleigh Quarterly, Broken Plate Magazine, Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, the Chaffey Review, and Existere. To read all of Susie Potter’s Triangle Arts and Entertainment articles and reviews, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/susie-q/. To read more of her writings, click http://www.susiepotter.com and http://www.myspace.com/susiepotter.