Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in the mid-1980s, Robert Harling's somewhat autobiographical 1987 play focuses on a close-knit group of women who reside in a fictitious Louisiana town, with all of the action playing out in Truvy's garage, which has been made over into a beauty salon. The plot begins when bride-to-be Shelby and her mother M'lynn stop by Truvy's to get their hair done for Shelby's wedding later that day. Truvy has taken in the shy and nervous Annelle to help her out around the shop; other women who stop by the shop include the recent widow Clairee and the cantankerous Ouiser. The story follows these women over a three-year period as the events in their lives, both funny and tragic, play out.
Full of lovable and strong characters, crisp witty dialogue, and many heartfelt moments, it's easy to see why Steel Magnolias is still a crowd-pleasing play thirty years after premiering and why Van Patten had no problem gaining the interest of so many gifted actresses to play these iconic characters.
Van Patten's cast included two actresses with Broadway credits: Kelli James, an original Les Misérables cast member and the first American to play Eponine on Broadway, was full of heart and motherly advice as Truvy, while Tregoney Shepherd, who has appeared on Broadway in The Phantom of the Opera and as Madame Thenardier in Les Misérables, was full of elegance and wit as the smart, wealthy woman who discovers there is much more to life than being a small-town widow. Both ladies delivered nuanced and rich portrayals of these wise women. Beka Burnham, who appeared as Nessarose the last time the tour of Wicked was in town, was set to play Shelby but due to illness local favorite Jessie Jo Pauley stepped in with little more than 24 hours' notice. With script in hand, Pauley delivered a knock-out portrayal of this stubborn girl who has her share of obstacles yet never finds a way to not live life to its fullest.
Melody Stuart was appropriately reserved as Shelby's mother, who is trying to hold it together while her daughter's wedding and other life events spiral out of control around her. Stuart was flawless in her delivery of M'Lynn's emotional meltdown toward the end of the play. Joy Bingham Strimple was full of fire as the scene-stealing Ouiser, ensuring that every comical line got big laughs but also delivering plenty of heart as well, especially in the play's final moments. While Annelle may be the character with the least amount to do, Lana Shumway's portrayal was superb in demonstrating how Annelle changes and how she gains strength and independence over the timeline of the play. Many of these actresses have known each other and Van Patten for a long time, and that brought a realistic sense of chemistry to their portrayals.
Van Patten's direction made moment, whether comical or emotional, ring true. He also made sure that the actions of James and Shumway as they went about their way washing, styling, and at one time cutting the hair of one of the other characters, appeared natural. Dori A. Brown's scenic design delivered a realistic hair salon establishment while Aurelie Flores' costumes and Joe Navan's makeup and wig designs provided the appropriate look and feel of the 1980s, with Navan's wigs a superb addition to this production.
While Van Patten may have used Facebook and not a Southern hair salon to confide his wish to direct this play to his friends, Steel Magnolias, just like Van Patten's experience, shows that the power of friendship is instrumental in solving the difficulties of life. With a talented cast and assured direction, this special event production proved to be one of the major highlights of the 2016-2017 season.
Steel Magnolias played two performances on February 10 and 11, 2017, at Mountain View High School, 2700 E. Brown Road, Mesa, Arizona.
Directed by Jere Van Patten
*Member, Actors' Equity Association