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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Familiar Yet Fragrant Steel Magnolias
Fills The Village Theatre

Steel Magnolias
(clockwise, from center) Kathryn Van Meter, Jayne Muirhead, Ellen McLain, Susanna Wilson, Laura Kenny
Robert Harling's seriocomic play Steel Magnolias, an Off-Broadway and film smash in the eighties, is heading for a big revival - on Broadway this time - but Issaquah, Washington's Village Theatre has beat them to the punch with a crowd-pleasing production. Director Jeff Steitzer has cast the play down the line with eminently suitable actresses who more than deliver the goods, whether tickling the funny bone or tugging at the heart. And, if there are few surprises in Steitzer's direction, and the first half of act one could use a shot of caffeine, my ultimate reaction was to surrender myself to the arresting performers onstage.

Steel Magnolias, for those only familiar with the film version, is a one-set show, with none of the men in the story making an appearance onstage. The play is set in the Chinquapin, Louisiana hair salon of the hearty, nosy Truvy. It takes place over a time span of about 16 months, on several Saturday mornings when the neighborhood regulars come by to have their hair done by Truvy and her new hire, the kooky yet initially secretive Annelle. The heart of the story comes from the relationship between M'Lynn, an attractive, subdued late-fortyish psychiatric case worker, and her twentyish daughter Shelby who starts the play as a bride to be and ends it as a powerful offstage presence. The wealthy and wisecracking Clairee and the cantankerous Ouiser complete the cast of characters.

Harling's script has more than a dollop of gooey sentimentality, interspersed with many still potent wisecracks, and at times has the feeling of an overlong TV sitcom (though a sitcom version of the show ironically failed to sell). Yet Steitzer's cast grounds their performances in reality. Shelby's plight of conceiving a baby, despite her extreme diabetic issues posing a threat to her own well-being, never veers into the maudlin, thanks to the cast's efforts and a well placed, belly-busting joke by Harling late in the more downbeat second act.

As Truvy, the captivating Jayne Muirhead energizes even the most commonplace aspects of the script and serves as the solid centerpiece of this production. Marianne Owen's M'Lynn is a touchingly believable mother who risks everything for her daughter, then explodes when even that isn't enough. Kathryn Van Meter is quite the revelation as Shelby, having been limited to glorified chorus roles in the past. Van Meter is attractive, yet plainer and more fallible than Julia Roberts' Shelby in the film, and in all ways gives the play's most affecting, deeply credible performance, scoring plenty of laughs along the way.

Speaking of laughs, in the hands of veteran Seattle actresses Ellen McClain as Clairee and Laura Kenny as Ouiser, laughs are in ample supply. McClain, whose Nashville, Tennessee upbringing lends itself to her very effortless Southern accent, gets off one quip after another without her character ever feeling bitchy or superficial. As for the hurricane-force laughs generated by Laura Kenny, the best advice I can give for the rest of the cast is to hold your next line when she has a zinger, for it will otherwise be lost. Kenny also finds the humanity of her character quite splendidly in the few times the script allows it to come through. In the most sketchily written role, applause goes to Susanna Wilson who brings an appealing flightiness mixed with sincerity to outsider Annelle.

Coming from a small town myself, I can offer a solid endorsement of Richard Lorig's cluttered yet cozy beauty parlor scenic design, and for Linda Ross's apt costumes which look just like what my mother wore to her Saturday morning hair appointments.

It will be interesting to see if Broadway supports Steel Magnolias' return, but at Village Theatre the word of mouth should easily sell out the scheduled run, and raise the possibility of a holdover.

Steel Magnolias runs through February 27, 2005 at The Village Theatre 303 Front St. North in Issaquah, WA and at the Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Avenue, Everett, WA March 4th through March 20th 2005. For furth information visit www.villagetheatre.org.


Photo © Village Theatre



- David-Edward Hughes



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