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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Entertaining Steel Magnolias at Paper Mill

Also see Bob's review of Melancholy Play

The Paper Mill Playhouse is providing quite satisfying entertainment to its audiences with its sure-handed revival of the warm and humorous, deservedly popular Steel Magnolias.

The play is officially set in 1987, the year that it was first produced by the W.P.A. Theatre in New York and then transferred to the Lucille Lortel Theatre where it completed its very successful almost three year run.  It is the first and thus far only known play by then actor Robert Harling.  It is a very personal play about his mother and sister.  The sincerity and affection that Harling has for his drawn-from-life characters raises his storytelling to a cut above.

Charlotte Booker, Kelly Bishop, Monique Fowler, Beth Fowler, Kelly Sullivan
and Kate Wetherhead

Steel Magnolias takes place entirely in Truvy's Beauty Parlor, which is located adjacent to her house in the small Louisiana town of Chinquapin.  Every Saturday morning, Truvy limits appointments to her oldest friends and customers.  The play follows the course of events over a period of two and a half years in the lives of six women who gather then at Truvy's.  There is much humor throughout, but the warmth and friendship that these ladies feel for one another is never far from the surface.  The main plot focus is on Shelby and her mother M'Lynn.  In the play's first scene, everyone is preparing for that day's wedding of the popular and pretty Shelby.  Her considerate and loving fiancé is a successful young lawyer.  However, mother and daughter are concerned about the diabetic Shelby having been told by a doctor that her condition makes it too risky for her to become pregnant (her fiancé is more than alright with this, and has enthusiastically embraced the idea of adoption).  Still, in time, Shelby does become pregnant, placing her life in danger in order to bear a child.

The consistent and somewhat broad humor which surrounds Steel Magnolias' more dramatic moments is discernibly underplayed.  Director Karen Carpenter (her best known work has been with San Diego's Old Globe where she was Associate Artistic Director) has followed the author's instruction that "the women in this play are witty, intelligent, and, above all, are real characters.  They , in no way, shape or form, are meant to be portrayed as cartoons or caricatures."  Although Carpenter and her cast may have gone a bit too far in downplaying the humor, they have certainly resisted any temptation to ignore Harling's admonition and milk the laughs.

Fortyish shop owner and mother hen Truvy is played with a muted flamboyance by Charlotte Booker.  Booker and her director let her costumes and hair fill in the rest of the picture.  Kate Wetherhead is new girl in town, Annelle.  Wetherhead nicely underplays the very comedic role of a troubled 19-year-old hired to be a shop assistant and due to be "adopted" by the big hearted Truvy, her life and beliefs in extreme flux.

Kelly Sullivan is especially moving and believable as the bride Shelby.  More so than the newly arrived Annelle, her life is becoming separate from the other women.  She will be living with her husband and, eventually, her child in another town.  The residual closeness and love that Shelby retains for her mother and her mother's friends (which they return in full measure) is the most moving element of Steel Magnolias, and Sullivan makes it feel palpable.  Monique Fowler, as her troubled and reflective mother M'Lynn, appropriately performs in a very quiet, completely naturalistic style.

The senior contingent of women are played by Kelly Bishop and Beth Fowler.  Bishop projects a strong presence with a dynamic performance as the wealthy town doyenne Clairee.  Beth Fowler plays the curmudgeonly Ouiser (pronounced Weezer), the most outrageously comic character.  It is certainly the role of Ouiser (who grabs a garden fork to disputatiously go out after M'Lynn's boorish off-stage husband) which is most ripe for overplaying.  Fowler does excellent work in holding down Ouiser to recognizable human size without losing any of her humor.

The large, over-cluttered set complete with clashing designs and colors by Hugh Landwehr is of the "no expense spared" variety.  As noted, the excellent costumes by David Murin effectively define character.  It is worth mentioning the excellent sound design by Randy Hanson.

At the heart of Steel Magnolias is a personal story close to the heart of author Robert Harling.  Yet, at the end of the day, Harling has ended up creating a funny, endearing, sentimental play whose greatest distinction is the pleasure which it provides to a broad audience.  That is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

Steel Magnolias continues performances (Evenings: Wed., Thurs., Sun. 7:30 / Fri., Sat. 8 pm; Matinees: Thurs., Sat., Sun. 2 pm) through April 6, 2008 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online:

Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling; directed by Karen Carpenter
Clairee……………….Kelly Bishop
Truvy……………Charlotte Booker
Ousier………………...Beth Fowler
M'Lynn………….Monique Fowler
Shelby……………...Kelly Sullivan
Annelle…………Kate Wetherhead

Photo: Gerry Goodstein   

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- Bob Rendell

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