PROVO — Annelle, Truvy, Clairee, Shelby, M’lynn, and Ouiser: these six women come together in the small town salon of Steel Magnolias to be beautified and befriended. Shelby is the center character, who the story follows as she struggles with diabetes and the challenges of adulthood. The rest surround her like the patches on a quilt—a very honest, humorous quilt, made with love.
Nicole McClellan played the vivacious Shelby. Her portrayal was so full of optimism and so much fun to watch as the bride-to-be. As time passed in Robert Harling‘s script, I could see Shelby grow in the way that she spoke and in her eyes. I felt that McClellan’s Shelby was a girl I’d like to be friends with. Shelby’s mother, M’lynn, was played by Karli Hall. There is a scene where Shelby tells her mother that she is expecting a baby—McClellen and Hall made this scene so genuine. And Hall’s monologue towards the end of the play was powerful; both are very talented actresses. Another noteworthy performance was delivered by Rosanna Ungerman, who was much more aware of the comedic timing needed for the script than many of her castmates. Ungerman’s character, Truvy, guides the conversation as the owner of the salon and gives little nudges to each character. Ungerman was definitely someone who drew my attention without blatantly asking for it. She was energetic, charming, and sweet. I have only praise for her performance.
I really enjoyed Harling’s story, and the idea of being simultaneously feminine and strong (hence, the title Steel Magnolias). The Echo Theatre’s production is good, but there were some details that distracted me from the story. Some little things bothered me, like the picture of princess grace, which was printed on computer paper; also the juice that was offered to Shelby in a coke cup. And I understand that music was important to the plot, but it needed to fade out during dialogue, so the scene could be the focus. Additionally, I believe wigs should not be used unless they are of good quality and believable; I feel the same way about acents.
I was confused by Susan Phelan’s portrayal of Ouiser, Shelby’s next door neighbor, especially in the first scene. Phelan may have been aiming for angry/flustered, but seemed more tipsy and lost. Quite frankly, I didn’t understand Phelan and director Taylor Peck‘s decisions about the character. Phelan was much easier to watch in the second act, when the character seemed to mellow out and become more levelheaded. Additionally, most cast members stumbled over their lines a few times, so it felt like they might have needed a few more rehearsal time. There are some really clever lines in this show, but many of them were skimmed over, leaving no time for the audience to laugh.
Some of the costumes (designed by Hailey Nebeker) were not flattering to the actresses or felt out of place, such as M’lynn’s black pants, Clairee’s shiny blouse/teal skirt combination, or Ouiser’s overalls that looked crisp and new. When all the women were together, the outfits never seemed to be in the same time period. This made some of the scenes distracting and jarring as fashions and time periods clashed. On the other hand, I liked the set by Hannah Kroff and Matt Boulter. It was naturally laid out—like a real beauty salon—and none of it seemed incongruous. I like that the salon chairs faced the audience and were set on an angle. Sadly, the scene changes felt sort of aimless; it took me out of the show when I saw the crew coming on and off without much purpose. One person used a cell phone to see the pieces she was moving.
There were some downsides to this production, but I left feeling uplifted. Steel Magnolias is a lovely story, and this particular production has enough substance in the performances to touch the heart. If you’re in the neighborhood, grab a seat at The Echo and be ready for a good cry.