Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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Most people know Robert Harling’s salute to southern womanhood, “Steel Magnolias,” from the 1989 film – a film I have always had issues with, because it seems to violate the central point of the piece. So, when the Whittier Community Theatre announced a production, it provided a chance to get reacquainted with the original play and its original concept.
The story centers on Truvy Jones’ beauty shop in small-town Louisiana. There, a group of neighborhood women gather regularly to be family to each other. Truvy’s husband – who apparently sits all day in front of the TV – is never seen. Neither are her two boys, who leave town as the play begins. This is not their world, it is Truvy’s, regularly including Clairee Belcher, the widow of the town’s mayor still looking for meaning beyond cheering on the high school football team, M’Lynn Eatenton, who – as the play begins – is readying for the wedding of her medically fragile daughter Shelby, and Ouiser Boudreax, the grumpy divorcee with an odd-looking dog.
The shop is the safe space for all these women, and for Annelle, the lost soul who becomes Truvy’s assistant. Indeed, the point of this play (as I have always seen it) is that the walls of this shop provide a fortress against the male-dominated world outside. Here they have control, and a particular brand of understanding comfort unavailable anywhere the men in their life stand. For that reason, the play has only one set – the shop – and the outside is left to our imagination. In a real sense, those other places don’t matter. This is where these women find home.
At WCT, this essential fact is honored, and though the production proves a bit low-rent, the essentials still work. Veronique Merrill Warner gives Truvy a tone of humor and level-headedness which set the tone for the rest of the show, though it is sometimes a bit underplayed. Nancy Tyler’s Clairee evokes a foundational love of life, even as her character searches for her own identity after a lifetime of being “the mayor’s wife.” Rose London radiates an almost sacrificial practicality as M’Lynn, trying to be the voice of sense for her daughter even as she faces frustrations of her own with humor. Marty Crouse is a hoot as the crabby Ouiser, whose underlying warmth becomes increasingly obvious as the play moves forward.
Evelyn Goode does not radiate fragility as Shelby, but perhaps that is the point. Most certainly, it makes her story the surprise it should be for the rest of the characters. In the process she creates a genuine balance of optimism and romantic impracticality as she learns to put a good face on difficult situations. Julie Ray’s Annelle seems a bit more seasoned in some ways than the 20-year-old character is supposed to be, but gradually blends into the troupe and provides important humor and pathos as she does.
Director Philip Brickey has a feel for the part of country these women are to come from, and it shows. He uses Suzanne Frederickson’s rather spare set well, and keeps the pace rolling along with a necessary briskness. Jennifer Coffee has created and collected costumes which are good for the characters, though the wigs they wear at various times do not always live up to the demands of a play about a hair salon.
Still, what matters most is the chemistry of the ensemble, and here that increases as the play progresses. “Steel Magnolias” has become a national term since the play and then film swept the country, rather than a specifically southern euphemism, in part because the struggles present were so much more elemental than geographic. The production at WTC will help one remember why. If you go, you will help them celebrate this company’s 95th birthday season.
What: “Steel Magnolias” When: Through March 11, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 5 at 2:30 p.m. Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 adults, $12 seniors, students, children and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org