Regional Reviews: Boston
The story revolves around Shelby (Oye Ehikhamhen) and her mother M'Lynn (Liz Adams) as they primp for the former's wedding, discuss the pros and cons of her groom and men in general, and argue about how Shelby handles her health issues. However, Truvy (Catherine Lee Christie) is the grounded center of it all, understanding the important dual role of her shop in the lives of the women who pop in as if it were the neighborhood bar. Gossip and wisecracks notwithstanding, Truvy's is a safe haven where they can share their secrets (or not), get advice whether they ask for it or not, and always find someone who needs their help.
In that vein, at the start of the play, Truvy hires Annelle (Lauren Elias), a new girl in town who doesn't seem to know where her husband is and whether she is legally married. Annelle is a fish out of water, but a good soul, and Elias plays up her discomfort and clumsiness. Her boss seems to have an endless supply of patience, and the patrons of the shop look upon her with curiosity. Clairee Belcher (June Kfoury), the widow of the former mayor of Chinquapin Parish, is especially interested in Annelle's back story, while her lifelong friend Ouiser (Maureen Adduci) just looks on with incredulity.
Steel Magnolias is character driven by a sextet of well-drawn, diverse characters, and Plum has matched the actors well with their roles. Christie anchors the cast with an easygoing, open demeanor and a credible twang, conveying the essence of Truvy (played by Dolly Parton in the 1989 film) without a false note. Kfoury is her equal in the authenticity department; in fact, she inhabits her character so naturally that I'm not sure that she isn't actually Clairee playing herself. Linchpin of the now defunct Zeitgeist Stage Company, Adduci is a hoot as the lovable curmudgeon who doesn't mince words ("I'm not crazy, I've just been in a very bad mood for forty years.") and would give up a kidney if her dog needed it. Adams has the proper bearing for (in Harling's words) the "socially prominent career woman" and capably blends that aspect of M'Lynn with the emotional challenges inherent in being not only a concerned mother, but also mother of the bride.
Ehikhamhen, a Brandeis University grad, is a newcomer to the Boston theater scene, but unfortunately for local audiences, she will be heading to UCLA in the fall to pursue her theater MFA. Amongst the veteran actors onstage beside her, and cast as a person of color in a mixed-race family, Ehikhamhen gives an impressive performance. As Plum points out in her program notes, anti-miscegenation laws were not overturned until 1967 (Shelby would have been born in 1960), criminalizing interracial marriage and making it virtually impossible for this family to have existed. Faced with that reality, it is up to Ehikhamhen to get the audience to go along with the concept of Shelby as a person of color and the daughter of Adams' character. She is bright-eyed and disarming, inviting us to engage with her multi-faceted personality: the daughter who wants to flex her independence, while still needing her mother's support; the bride who is both excited and wary; the woman who desperately wants a child, in spite of the medical contraindications.
Harling uses Shelby's Type 1 diabetes and the limitations it imposes on her as his dramatic conflict, both telling us about it and showing it in the first act. The condition hovers in the background as Shelby tries to live the life she has planned, and M'Lynn and the others carry on with their own lives. When Shelby makes a choice at the end of the first act that raises the stakes, we brace for a change of emotional tone in act two. However, there is no palpable buildup of tension, no climax of sadness, and the grief we do see comes across more like submission than anguish. Although the action of the play slows down in these latter scenes, the pacing is not a substitute for an emotional tug that never materializes.
As for the production values, set designer Cassie Chapados places a pair of beauty parlor chairs front and center, and the walls are papered with numerous headshots of women sporting big hair. Costumes by Chelsea Kerl are varied and effectively define the characters' personalities, aided by Caroline Clancy's array of wigs. Chris Bocchiaro (lighting design), Kyle Lampe (sound designer), and Cesara Walters (props designer) add to the authenticity of the world of the play, and Jamie Shannon Ertle (dialect coach) has been mostly successful in making everyone sound like they're from Louisiana, with a few lapses.
The intimate space at Club Café is ideal for Hub Theatre Company's staging of Steel Magnolias, giving the audience the opportunity to feel the strong connection among the denizens of Truvy's. Ultimately, that's what it's all about.
Hub Theatre Company of Boston's Steel Magnolias, through August 3, 2019, at Club Café, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston MA. All Tickets Are Pay-What-You-Can. For more information, visit www.hubtheatreboston.org.
Written by Robert Harling, Directed by Paula Plum; Lauren Elias, Producer; Kathryn Long, Assistant Director; Allison Davis, Stage Manager; Kelsey Whipple, Assistant Stage Manager; Robert Orzalli, Production Manager; Cassie Chapados, Set Designer/Technical Director; Chris Bocchiaro, Lighting Designer; Kyle Lampe, Sound Designer; Chelsea Kerl, Costume Designer; Cesara Walters, Props Designer; Caroline Clancy, Wig Master; Jamie Shannon Ertle, Dialect Coach
Cast: Catherine Lee Christie, Lauren Elias, June Kfoury, Oye Ehikhamhen, Liz Adams, Maureen Adduci