PROVO — When playwright Robert Harling‘s sister passed away in 1985 from diabetic complications and a donated kidney failure, a friend suggested to Harling that he write down his thoughts and feelings to come to grips with her death. The result was his play Steel Magnolias. Many of audience members have seen the movie with the all-star cast, and because of that you may think, “Why do I need to see the play?” Well, here’s why: the play is better. I was ready to dismiss the play, as I did the movie, for being emotionally manipulative. (Who wouldn’t cry for a woman whose daughter had just died?) But I was so wrong. The play is not manipulative, but rather it is honest, funny, and touching. Because the play only focuses on these six strong and independent Southern women—rather than opening it up to include the men in their lives, as the movie did—the play overflows with heart and soul, and so does the Covey Center’s Production of Steel Magnolias.
Director Lynne D. Bronson has assembled a good cast and directs them well. (Bronson also found a nearly all-female production team that included excellent costumes by Nancy Cannon and other designs by Pam Davis and John Cluff.) However, some performers stronger than others, which makes the production uneven and lessens the emotional impact. The play got off to a rocky start, whether from dropped lines, or opening night nerves, I’m not sure. However, what’s important in this production is that when each individual actress needs to deliver a moving performance, she does with emotion and power.
The story is an estrogen-driven, Southern-comfort comedy set exclusively in Truvy’s Beauty Shop in, fictitious, Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, with drawling dialogue that revolves around local gossip, recipe exchanges and Shelby (played well by Mikah Vaclaw). Shelby is an endearing, headstrong young women whose diabetes and disappointing marriage lead to personal setbacks, medical complications and tough-love doled out by her sometimes doting, but always adoring mother, M’Lynn (played by Kelly Beck). The relationship between these two actresses seemed rather thin at the beginning, but by the second act had cemented well. This relationship is crucial, because without it, the climax of the play, Shelby’s death, and M’Lynn’s outburst of grief would have no foundation and fall flat. But Beck was able to pull it off, dig deep into her soul and deliver. I doubt there was a dry eye in the house.
M. Brooke Wilkins plays the salon owner, Truvy Jones, and Wilkins is wonderful. This is the second play in which I’ve seen her, and she didn’t disappoint. Her Truvy is a delight, full of wit and southern grit. Emily Burns plays Truvy’s born-again assistant Annelle, who was sweet and understated, sometimes a little too mousy, but warmed up by the end of the play. Melany Wilkins and Catherine Bohman play Clairee and Ouiser, respectively, a duo of lovable and devoted locals, who come in for a wash and a rinse, but stay to dish and offer astute observations about life and love. Melany Wilkins’s performance as Clairee is warm, robust, and filled with perfect comic timing and remarkable heart. She is worth the price of admission.
What makes Steel Magnolias so very entertaining and appealing is that the writing is filled with clever, deep-fried witticisms and hilarious one-liners, and the characters are affable and absolutely charming. Throughout the play, these women share in Shelby’s pain and pleasure and, by doing so, invites the audience to do the same. When they are played well, both their gentility and inner strength ring true because is about, at its core, friendship. True, deep, lasting, caring friendship. The kind everyone wants, and (with a lot of luck) might have.
There aren’t many plays in the American repertoire that have all-women casts. Only three or four come to my mind, and this is one of the best. So, for an evening filled with laughter and a few tears, grab a girlfriend, (or boyfriend) and go!
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