Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling. Directed by Jason Moore. Set design by Anna Louizos. Costume desigin by David Murin. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Ken Travis. Hair design & supervision by Bobby H. Grayson. Cast: Delta Burke, Christine Ebersole, Rebecca Gayheart, Marsha Mason, Lily Rabe, Frances Sternhagen.
Men beware: Broadway's estrogen level has just skyrocketed. I can't promise that you'll have a bad time if (or when) your wives or girlfriends drag you to the Lyceum to see the new production of Steel Magnolias, but you're going to be at a distinct disadvantage before even a single word is spoken.
Robert Harling's play is, after all, set in a Louisiana hair salon, and the six women characters spend nearly two and a half hours talking about their families, their feelings, their pasts, their futures, their hopes, and their dreams. While Harling is careful to include plenty of jokes enjoyable by people of every age and gender, this just isn't a play that's particularly Y-chromosome friendly. My best advice to you if you're made to sit through this theatrical equivalent of a "chick flick": Grin and bear it.
Women, you're encouraged to keep that in mind as well. Oh, you'll undoubtedly find the challenges and interactions of these six Southern ladies much more relatable than will men; their rivalries and eccentricities are carefully laid out over several generations of characters, so you'll find something of relevance to you no matter where you are in life. But be forewarned that even your theatrical sensibilities might prevent you from absorbing what little content is present in this gently ingratiating but ultimately mawkish show.
Those familiar with the 1989 film version, which starred Sally Field, Dolly Parton, and Julia Roberts, know what they're in for. But the movie diluted the play's saccharine nature, at least to a degree, by capitalizing on film's ability not only to create tight, intimate moments but also open other scenes up. As the men in the women's lives also played visible roles in the action, the world and story felt more accessible and less like a slice-of-life glimpse at a beauty parlor confessional. Onstage in a full-sized Broadway house (the show's 1987 Off-Broadway premiere was at the Lucille Lortel), even the most honest of sentiment seems over-inflated and insignificant.
This is most noticeable in the play's primary story thread, which follows the middle-aged M'Lynn (Christine Ebersole) coping with her diabetic daughter Shelby (Rebecca Gayheart) finding love, getting married, having a baby, and so on. Though this is intended as the play's emotional core, it's already a bit contrived - you know how their story will end almost as soon as it begins - so even a little falseness and affectation can easily render it inert. That's what happens: While Ebersole and Gayheart don't do poor work, they do work too hard, and end up as mild caricatures of the women they're playing.
With the play's balance thrown off, the other women become more interesting and more central. Responsible for what real success this production has are the bite and flawless comic timing exhibited by Frances Sternhagen and Marsha Mason as, respectively, Clairee and Ouiser. Clairee, the former mayor's wife (he's since passed on) possesses an off-kilter, lilting elegance that gives her good-hearted jibes extra punch. Ouiser, forever warring with M'Lynn's husband, is more given to brash complaining and braying out earthy bon mots. Sternhagen and Mason play the roles to the hilt, and prove hilarious highlights of the evening.
Delta Burke's years of experience as Suzanne Sugarbaker on TV's Designing Women qualify her for the role of the salon's proprietor Truvy; she has immediate authority as a detail-oriented Southern businesswoman. But while her peach-tinged complexion and twangy voice are just right, she's never convincing as the sororal figure around whom the other women's lives revolve. Burke's Truvy instead seems more like someone who would visit the salon than run it, and she's underpowered, dramatically and comedically, in most everything she does. Lily Rabe is more right as Truvy's new co-worker Annelle, but is limited in her acting opportunities to complaining about her deadbeat husband and eventually finding God.
Moore, like the actresses, is hampered by the material: Aside from failing to find a way to fit such a cozy play in a big Broadway theater, his work here is confined to staging entrances and exits to achieve the maximum amount of applause and to keep as many women as possible in the spotlight for the longest period of time. The production's most surprising, delightful moment, though, is one he might not have devised: Between the first and second scenes, Anna Louizos's attractive beauty parlor set transforms from April sunniness to Christmas kitsch in the blink of an eye.
The rest of this production would greatly benefit from more such invention. Not that David Murin had much latitude with his costumes, or Howell Binkley with his lights; regardless, their contributions are credible. But a few more dashes of the unexpected would help rescue this Steel Magnolias from the inoffensive, Lifetime-Television-for-Women doldrums in which it's mostly mired. As it is, only Mason and Sternhagen make a positive, enlivening impression; Ebersole, with the juiciest overall role, comes close, but by the end of her final scene, she's left no emotion un-emoted and no bit of scenery unchewed.
She's lucky, in a way - at least she has something to nibble on. For the
rest of us, this warmed-over, feel-good-or-else outing isn't so satisfying:
It's too slickly, genteelly professional to provide the kind of innocent
entertainment it needs to succeed. Still, at the performance I attended,
the majority of the laughs - and sobs - were unquestionably coming from the
females in the audience; if women are that taken with it, men will be taken
to it. But it's a shame that the final destination isn't one more worthy of
visitation by either sex.