As part of a season that has included the recognizable titles Fame, Chicago, White Christmas, and soon Hairspray, the folks at Albuquerque Little Theatre have set out to remind audiences that Harling's words were originally intended for live performance.
All four acts of Harling's play take place in a carport-turned-salon in Chinquapin, Louisiana. Set designer Colby Martin Landers has created a meticulously designed beauty shop with subtle details that encourage wandering eyes and discovery over the four acts of the show. Coffee cups emblazoned with magnolias, 1980s editions of Southern Living Magazine and a poster proclaiming, "There's no such thing as natural beauty!" enhance the welcoming tone established by the striped green walls and hospitable attitude set by Truvy, the shop's owner, played by JoAnne Blackstone. Responsibility for the show's pacing falls almost entirely on Blackstone, and she does a good job of welcoming the other characters while reminding us that the shop is her domain. She rarely stops moving around the large stage and her outgoing attitude and constant smile leave audiences hoping that places like this exist outside of the American South.
Though the play tells the story of six women who enter and leave the beauty shop, the focal point of the show is Shelby, a character inspired by playwright Robert Harling's late sister and played at ALT by Beth Paone Fuller. Shelby has left Chinquapin and returns home twice: once to get married and once to prepare for a kidney transplant. Though Shelby is welcomed by all of the women at Truvy's, she is also an outsider to the group, not only because she has moved away but also because she is decades younger and physically more fragile than the women who surround her. While the rest of the women in the cast are able to verbally spar with each other, Paone's own contributions to dialogue often seem stilted and concentrated on remembering a Louisiana accent rather than infused with emotion surrounding an impending wedding and an upcoming surgery.
Conversely, Laurie Finnegan is both adept and natural in the role of M'Lynn, Shelby's worried and often judgmental mother. Through the entirety of the play, she struggles between holding her tongue in order to let Shelby lead her own life and expressing her own strong views surrounding Shelby's well being. While M'Lynn often suppresses her urge to comment, audience favorite Ouiser (Karen Paone) never filters her immediate thoughts and utters some of the most memorable and quotable lines of the show. Although the other women in the cast are most frequently dressed in church finery, costume designer Aura Sperling outfits Ouiser in memorable ensembles that pair overalls with fur coats, a visual representation of an unpredictable comedic character.
While the show is dependent upon larger than life women, two of the most thoughtful performances are achieved by the subtle work of Christy Burbank (in the role as confused, young Annelle) and Samantha Blauwkamp (as Clairee, the former first lady of Chinquapin). Burbank, a student in The University of New Mexico Department of Theatre and Dance, often blends into the background, making coffee or fetching curlers, but that is exactly what she is supposed to do. When it comes time for her to speak and reveal her growth at designated intervals throughout the show, she does so with precision and honesty. Likewise, Samantha Blauwkamp spends much of the show sitting on a couch, copying recipes and flipping through outdated magazines. However, when she does choose to participate in the verbal repartee, it becomes clear that, although she may be less outwardly expressive than her counterparts, she hasn't missed a beat.
During opening weekend at Albuquerque Little Theatre, the Women in Philanthropy group from United Way was in attendance, each member wearing a magnolia hair accessory. The group was an extremely receptive audience for Harling's words and collectively held their breath in anticipation of some of the show's most memorable lines. While it is impossible to avoid drawing comparisons to the much beloved film, Potenziani and his impressive cast of strong women have created a production that reminds us that laughing with friends is one of the richest elements of life.
Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling is presented by Albuquerque Little Theatre and directed by Bill Potenziani. The show runs through March 13, 2011, at the historic Albuquerque Little Theatre, 224 San Pasquale Street SW, just South of Old Town. Show times are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, and Sundays at 2 PM. Tickets are $22, with discounts for students, children and seniors. For reservations call 505-242-4750 or visit www.albuquerquelittletheatre.org.