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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Steel Magnolias is
an Appealing Dramatic Comedy

Also see Richard's recent review of Mysterious Skin

The Willows Theatre continues its 27th season with a revival of Robert Harling’s comedy-drama, Steel Magnolias. The play premiered at the WPA Theatre in New York in June 1987 and then went to the Lucille Lortel Theatre where it ran 1,126 performances and was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award. It was made into a successful motion picture that garnered an Academy Award nomination for Julia Roberts in one of her first film roles. The film cast also included Olivia Dukakis, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton and Daryl Hannah playing five softhearted “magnolias” with steely dispositions. The film was opened up to include the male characters talked about in the play.

Steel Magnolias
Chetana Karel, Phoebe Moyer,
Marie Shell and Nancy Madden

Steel Magnolias takes place in the little town of Chinquapin, Louisiana in Truvy’s Beauty Salon, the unofficial hub where the ladies can chat, advise, criticize and comfort one another. Truvy (Marie Shell) is the wisecracking owner who is an incurable romantic. She has three regular customers who come in every Saturday to discuss all the tittle-tattle that is going on in the town. The four scenes in this two act play take place over the course of two years in which the women experience love, happiness, aches, death and rebirth. Shelby (Lillian Oglesby) is a rich young woman on the verge of marriage, and her mother (Nancy Madden), who is a local social worker, has obtained an appointment for Shelby to have her hair done prior to the big wedding. A subplot involves the new “glamour technician,” Annelle (Leslie Waggoner), who is not sure if she is married or not.

The second scene occurs seven months after the marriage when Shelby announces that she is pregnant. Her mother is not so happy because her daughter is a diabetic; any impediments would not only endanger the daughter but the baby as well. To add to the problems, an urgent organ transplant ups the problem even further. Annelle has found religion and she is now a “born again Christian” in the local Southern Baptist Church. The two scenes that follow in the second act become more dramatic with the birth of the child and what happens to all of the women.

Steel Magnolias displays wonderful banter among the six characters, ranging from hilarity to pathos. Each of the lives of the six women is interesting as they share joys and sorrows with each other accompanied by laughter, hair dryers and the other beauty aids of the salon. The ensemble is superb with no men present on stage - but you learn all about men through the conversations of these women.

Marie Shell as the wisecracking Truvy is a larger than life beautician with a lot of Dolly Parton in her performance. Lily Oglesby is quite plausible as the desperately heroic Shelby, instilling the character with definite humanity. Nancy Madden is wonderful as the worried mother, and her brilliant breakdown scene is remarkable. It seems that her speech will become excessively maudlin like a soap opera, but it takes a wonderful about-face with the help of businesswoman Clairee (Phoebe Moyer). This is a great tour de force of acting by the two actresses. Moyer, who plays the eccentric millionaire, delivers her lines with impeccable comic timing and she gets a lot of laughs from the audience when she delivers her punch lines.

Chetana Karel is fine as the town’s rich curmudgeon Ouiser who comes on stage from time to time for a new hairdo when not provoking the neighbors. Leslie Waggoner as Annelle provides a clear, crisp characterization of a nerdy person.

Director Dianna Shuster (who served 23 years as Artistic Director of the American Musical Theatre of San Jose) helms the splendid cast, and the pacing of the play is on the mark. The compassionate camaraderie within this group of females is marvelous.

Aiyana Trotter has transformed the stage into a detailed beauty salon in the carport of Truvy’s house. Lighting design by Chris Guptill is excellent, as usual. There is a slight sound problem when the actresses are up on a platform stage left, but that is being fixed.

Steel Magnolias runs thru June 8th at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Blvd in the Willows Shopping Center, Concord. Tickets can be obtained by calling 925-798-1300 or logging onto www.willowtheare.org. Their next production is the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic musical South Pacific, set to open on June 23rd and run through August 3rd.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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