Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron
Playwright Robert Harling is best known for this play, which he wrote after his sister died of complications from diabetes. Complications and death from diabetes is one of the major plotlines. In addition to Steel Magnolias, Harling wrote the screenplays for several successful movies, Soapdish, First Wives Club, and Laws of Attraction.
In 1987, Steel Magnolias opened Off-Broadway and soon moved to Broadway for run of over a year and a half. The 1989 film version included some of the leading actresses of our time: Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah, Dolly Parton and Shirley MacLaine.
The story is set in Truvy's in-home beauty shop in Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, 1986. Scenic designer Vicki Smith has created a working beauty salon. Truvy (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse) reserves Saturday morning appointments for the regulars: Clairee (Charlotte Booker), M'Lynn (Erika Rolfsrud), and Ouiser (Mary Stout). The story starts on a Saturday morning when Truvy has hired a new girl, Annelle (Devon Caraway). The women at Truvy's are excited that Shelby (Allison Layman), who is M'Lynn's daughter, has an appointment to get her hair done before her wedding in the afternoon.
As the women chat, they disclose their successes, failures, hopes and dreams. From their talk they reveal that they are deep, loving best friends. Their friendships survive weddings, Christmas festivals, deaths and funerals. These steel magnolias may bend but they never break.
Harling wrote characters that change and that is the open secret of a successful play. Shelby, on her wedding day, talks about having a child, although her doctor has told her that she might not survive childbirth because of her diabetes. By the second scene, she is expecting a child. Annelle, an unemployed waif deserted by her husband, grows into a well-groomed woman who is active in her Baptist church, with a new husband by the curtain call. Clairee, recently widowed, launches a career for herself and makes that career successful. All of this, and more, is revealed in their Saturday morning visits to Truvy's hair salon.
The plot is a carefully constructed comedy of manners. The playwright wants the audience to laugh at the foolish chatter and small events that give meaning to the lives of his characters. Yet he manages to cut much deeper to let us know that the funny business is their way of dealing with the great expanse of emotional emptiness that is their lives. Yes, several things of significance are about to happen. The playwright gives the audience a hint of Shelby's illness from the middle of the first act.
This is a special production. The cast makes the comedy biting and bitchy. Yet, when M'Lynn has a long speech about death in the final scene of the play, she doesn't leave many dry eyes in the theater.
Director Laura Kepley and the cast have developed an excellent ensemble production that should successfully attract audiences through the run of the show. Kepley has added two singer/musicians to this production. Emily Casey and Maggie Lakis sing and play various instrumentsguitar, fiddle, banjo, and other instruments popular in the rural areas of this country. They sing and play an introductionlook for the exit signs should you need them later, don't take pictures or record anything from the showand during the transitions between scenes and the acts.
Steel Magnolias is a tender melodrama laced with good comedy and sad events, not unlike life. This production merits the reader's attention and attendance.
Y'all gonna have a knee-slappin' good time.
Steel Magnolias plays through August 21, 2016, in the Allen Theatre. The Allen Theatre seats fewer than 500 people, so don't wait to reserve your tickets. For ticket information, telephone 330-434-7741 or visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com.
Playwright: Robert Harling